Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)

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Watching Jaws the night before you go and see the new Steven Spielberg film probably doesn’t do it a lot of favors under any circumstances, but given the political weight of Lincoln and the inevitable trappings of the biopic form itself, this particular movie would seem to be at a firm disadvantage. This isn’t merely a biopic, of course, but a biography of the most beloved of all American statesmen, a nearly Christlike figure. The baggage is hard to even contemplate, especially coming in the director’s career just after three popcorn trifles. Luckily, it lurches violently away from conventional Hollywood formulas of approaching a famed life — Tony Kushner’s intelligent script zeroes in on the final months of Lincoln’s life and the essence of his legacy, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and abolishment of slavery from the United States. The great success is that the surprisingly uncinematic result has the robust detail and fervor of a great procedural, and it’s to its highest benefit that it winds itself up in political minutiae. As great as Daniel Day-Lewis’ central performance is, and as much as he seems to bring a textbook image of the sixteenth President to life, the farther the film gets from being truly about Abraham Lincoln, the better it is.

It’s been fashionable in the last few months to say that every American should see Lincoln. I’d be more inclined to say every American should see Point of Order for a more harrowing yet telling glimpse into the way our political process works. Besides, this is a staid business. Witty as it sometimes is, fascinating as it undeniably is to history buffs and those with a considerable interest in American government, even Spielberg can’t really draw a meaningful line between what happens on his screen and how it relates to a larger world. His sole weak attempts are an opening conversation with two black soldiers that seems uncomfortably out of place, Day-Lewis sitting stony with his backs to us like Cary Grant in the opening of Notorious; and a later conversation with Elizabeth Keckley (maid to Mary Todd Lincoln) that reads like a Kushner impression of how 21st Century people would reenact 19th Century thoughts and exchanges, which inevitably of course is what’s happening here. Otherwise, we don’t really see slavery, not directly, and yet that’s not all that offensive because for most of the duration, this is pretty much a chamber piece.

Spielberg thus is impressively restrained almost (but not quite; see that horrendous business with the candle and the fucking hologram at the end) for the full length of the film, which is to its benefit and detriment. There’s almost no drooping sentimentality, which has been slipping away from the director’s work in the last couple of decades anyway, but it’s unquestionably a relief to see Lincoln examined instead of lionized — even if his charming anecdotes and little outbursts seem a sideshow in his own picture. But on the other hand, Spielberg’s best Social Studies-class films have usually taken meatier, more substantial risks than this one does. The radical narrative choices and idiosyncractic editing in Schindler’s List, Amistad (another White People Solve Slavery back-scratcher), and particularly the Kushner-penned Munich incited hordes of people into outrage and contempt at his (in their view) disrespectful shoehorning of history into a personal self-benefitting narrative. But those films were also brilliant, passionate and unforgettably fucked up. You could accuse them of glossing or justifying or one-dimesional demonizing, anything you like, but they never flinched before misery. In Lincoln, slavery is an abstraction, a political minefield and a high-minded concern to be filed away with a difficult marriage and various interpersonal stresses. It doesn’t look like a thing that happened to people, that was done to people by other people.

As I write this I’m about a hundred pages into Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, upon which Kushner based his screenplay, and already it’s provided a greater number of uncompromised documents of not just slavery but Lincoln and his staff’s experiences of it, which has the double purpose of underlining the importance of Lincoln’s political actions and signaling his own personal motives. All that said, is the film fascinating? Yes, and does it incite the viewer (certainly me) to look more carefully into its subject matter? Absolutely, and that’s with this stuff already being a point of interest for me, so maybe the tenth graders forced to sit through this for the next several decades won’t have such an awful time. But for Spielberg to approach all this at such a considerable distance, while understandable and certainly successful (his reviews for this contain far fewer caveats than those for Amistad), is a disappointment. I suspect that the overwhelming popular reaction to the film, though, is less a reaction to the Lincoln iconography than the salve provided by the sensation of seeing our government do something righteous and proper.

The humanizing of Lincoln himself, meanwhile, is more of an unqualified score, even if Kushner and Spielberg can’t finally escape their reverence for him. Indeed, the real story of Lincoln’s big scenes in the film is Spielberg coming to terms with the iconography of the man and doing his best to make him seem believably human. Thus, much of the credit for making Lincoln alarmingly real goes to Day-Lewis, whose occupation of the part is absolute, and often effortlessly heart-rending. If we approach this awe-inspiring performance as a fusion of history’s conception of Lincoln with Lincoln in actuality, I think it becomes even stronger than if it’s seen as a direct rendering — which is one of many reasons I’m overjoyed that the choice was made not to craft a direct biopic here. But on the other hand, Tommy Lee Jones comes so much to life as Thaddeus Stevens that, for me at least, he threatened to upstage the lead actor. Jones has an easy part here since Stevens is such a compelling character. His line when someone knocks on the door of his office was my biggest jolt of pleasure in the full 150 minutes.

All that said, the lead and support performances are excellent (there isn’t much of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I’m slowly deciding I don’t particularly like), Day-Lewis’ full-bodied enthusiasm quite believable, and the political junkie in me did respond to the level of audacity and detail in the rendering of how the 13th Amendment managed its miraculous passage through back alleys and gray-area favors, all rendered with potent and quick-witted detail. So the complaints can be pinned down mostly to two biggies — My kingdom for a three-dimensional black character in a film about the emancipation of black Americans, or even for an opposition as convincingly real as Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. All that aside, my biggest loudest objection is to the last five minutes of the film.

If we posit, as Spielberg and Kushner clearly do, that the real story of this movie is the passage of the Amendment, there’s no reason to trod back over the familiar ground of the President’s assassination, filmed again and again through the years. That goes all the way back to Birth of a Nation if not earlier. But I fully expected it would anyway, and it did. I did not, however, expect Spielberg at this point in his career to take the most deplorable and pointlessly cruel pathway to doing so, by playing the news on the face of Lincoln’s young son Tad. And then, introducing a final flashback of Lincoln the orator as an icky apparition that spews forth from a candle? That’s something Griffith himself would do, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Nor is the gigantic walk-of-the-gods by Lincoln to his carriage for the theater a particularly proud moment for Spielberg. I’d immensely prefer the film ended several minutes earlier: there have been objections to the depiction of Lydia Smith, Thaddeus Stevens’ mixed race common-law wife. To the prospective viewer who’s unaware of her existence, though, the revelation adds greater weight to Stevens’ earlier moral conflicts about saying things he doesn’t believe for the greater good. If one does know, that increases the suspense at those same moments, and as for me, after the whole body of the film I sort of expected it just wouldn’t go there, its conception of Stevens wholly as a politician. But when it did, I found it cathartic and a welcome touch of subversion, and I long for the film to have closed out on their kiss.

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