Monday, December 24, 2012

Principled corruption

It's becoming customary for me to spend what most regard as Christmas Eve at the movies. With no family about and all friends engaged with families of their own, I tend to drift toward the nearest Oscar contender in hopes of finding something worthwhile. Lincoln is worthwhile, but has a couple flaws that prevent me from naming it the blockbuster, extrapalooza Picture of the Year that so many are ready to christen it (My vote still rests with Argo.)

First, the undeniable: Tony Kushner's screenplay and almost all of the performances are brilliant, led (properly) by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe himself and Sally Field as his beleaguered wife, Mary. Kushner, known far more for his plays than the two or three screenplays he's written, delivered a very play-like script. Most of the "action" is a few people in a room talking to each other. I have no objection whatsoever to films like this. I loved Asimov's books, which are mostly two people in a room discussing weighty matters and this film works in the same way that other films developed from plays (A Few Good Men, Malcolm X, Glengarry Glen Ross) tend to work. The interplay of the dialogue is sufficient action to keep the audience interested. A special emphasis here is placed on the fact that Lincoln loved to indulge in storytelling, often flavored by his supposedly bawdy sense of humor. Consequently, we are treated to repeated moments of Lincoln holding his colleagues captive to some rhetorical flourish that is relevant to the moment.

What drags this technique down is, unfortunately, Spielberg's direction. Since most of his notable recent films are powerful historical pieces, he tends to let the aforementioned weighty philosophical moments take center stage to the detriment of all else. The pace of his direction becomes bogged down as he attempts to constantly engage the audience in yet five more minutes of gravitas. Instead of the flow of his earlier, more dynamic efforts, we instead feel like we're hopping from one wet stone to the next, landing with surety every time in order to maintain our balance, but becoming exhausted as we get across the river. Indeed, after about the third or fourth time, Lincoln's storytelling moments became akin to homilies (or "pieties", as they were derided in the film) or teaching moments for a small child, as in the picture above. Lincoln's intelligence, talent with a pen, and oratory skill are well known to any student of history. It does not detract from his figure that these moments begin to feel like a second-grade classroom. The history is replete with evidence that he did, often, have moral lessons to impart to those around him. But it's easy to feel browbeaten as an audience member if you feel like you're repeatedly being lectured.

As you might expect, what saves these moments and continually energizes the film is DDL's performance. He is his usual magnetic self and you miss his presence in front of the camera every moment in which he's not there and he deserves every accolade he's getting for this role, which is probably the best he's ever done. The perfect counterpoint to the air of serenity and wisdom that Day-Lewis brings is the shrill and self-centered Mary Todd Lincoln of Field. You never get a truer sense of the stress and tribulation that Lincoln suffered than when he has to answer to his wife about any number of issues, from family to politics.

Other performances are almost as well done, although I wish that more could have been gotten from the redoubtable David Straithairn as Seward. James Spader was almost completely unrecognizable as the bumbling political operative, W. N. Bilbo (and how timely is it that another film is released in the same time frame wherein a major character is attached to the name "Bilbo"?), as was Jared Harris (Lane!) as U. S. Grant. I've seen a comment or two that suggests that having "name" actors in historical pieces tends to break the suspension of disbelief, since it's difficult to detach the actors from whom they are in order to believe that they happen to be Thaddeus Stevens. However, Tommy Lee Jones did such an excellent job portraying the latter that I had little trouble getting past that point. Again, the play-like script likely contributed, in that it was evident from the beginning that these were all people playing roles that fit them rather well, rather than attempting to convince us that they're anything but who they are. "Life's a walking shadow" and all that.

Of course, there are other little details that stick out to the historian in me. It's laughable to think of the president being interrupted to settle a toll booth dispute in some lonely corner of Mississippi, but that did, in fact, happen. As late as the early 20th century, you could stroll up to Teddy Roosevelt's White House and knock on the door and expect to be invited in to chat with the president. In contrast, the supposedly powerful scene of Robert Lincoln witnessing the discarding of limbs struck me as a little ham-handed (ow...) in that the limbs being tossed into the pit were largely whole. During 19th-century warfare, they tended to amputate when something had been shredded and/or crushed, so that scene probably should have been a lot messier than it was. Not that it stopped Spielberg from trying to club us over the head with the idea that it was a "bad moment", of course. Also, the overarching sappiness of Lincoln departing for the playhouse and all those watching him go reacting with such emotion as if they knew what was to take place that night was about as Hollywood as you can get and was one of the moments I really frowned at. It would have been enough to watch Lincoln's hunched shoulders and stovepipe hat descend the steps without also having his butler tear up as he walked out.

And, likewise, it's not possible to escape the relevance of the film to today's political situation, wherein one side is so devoted to an ideological stance (then, racism; now, stupidity) that defies reason and ethics that cooperation of any sort is seemingly not possible. I found Jones' moment as Stevens having to essentially renounce his purist approach on the floor of the House the most poignant of the film. I've been there. I've had to essentially skirt the reaches of my own views in order to make sure that something of a greater good moved forward. I detested it, but I did it. That's how you play the game sometimes. If other people had done the same, I might still be in politics. But I'll get back to that some other time.

In short, Lincoln is an excellent film and well worth seeing. But I don't think it's the best film of the year because the brilliant script and powerful performances were held back by the mediocre direction. Of course, it could be that I'm simply not sucked in by the Aesop's Fables approach to conveying ideas or too much the political cynic to believe that anyone within pissing distance of Capitol Hill ever has anyone's best interests in mind other than their own.

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