Monday, December 17, 2012

Lincoln (2012)

USA/India, 150 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Photography: Janusz Kaminiski
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Peter McRobbie

Over his long career Steven Spielberg has always seemed to find ways to inject himself into the zeitgeist, even to the point where sometimes he seems to seize control of it and point it in new directions. With Jaws, he took a gnawing fear pervading vast numbers of lives and gave it a name and a place to focus—was anyone really that worried about sharks before 1975? With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he took a groundswell yearning for meaning and did the same, extracting the spiritual out of the secular impositions of superior technology.

In many ways the historical film Lincoln plays to that pattern. I keep returning to the extraordinary timing of it, even knowing how hard it would have been to plan for, let alone achieve, and even given that ultimately it is beside the point. But I keep trying to imagine what Lincoln would have looked like if Mitt Romney had won the presidential election last month. And I find that I can't imagine it at all. I'm convinced that a good deal of the power of Lincoln—and I think it is an extraordinarily powerful movie—lies in the way it resonates with our present circumstances. Abraham Lincoln is one of our greatest presidents precisely because as Americans we return to him and his era whenever we find ourselves plunged in internal crises, as we are now.

So here is this remarkable historical film about Lincoln, set in the interregnum between his reelection and his inauguration to a second term, the film arriving in a parallel period mere days after the reelection of Barack Obama to his second term. Barack Obama, who has never been shy about claiming and aligning his legacy very specifically with Lincoln—never shy because there's such an obvious case to be made for it. Indeed, Lincoln focuses on the event that made it possible (and in so doing even opens a claim to the reelection of Barack Obama as a Steven Spielberg story): Abraham Lincoln's single-minded pursuit of the ultimate abolition of slavery, which required the herculean task of steering the U.S. House of Representatives, a notably recalcitrant and reprobate body then and now, to do the right thing. One of the most impressive features of Lincoln is how it is equally single-minded. It's not a movie about either the Civil War or the assassination of Lincoln, though both occur within it. But they are sidelights to the main show, which locates itself squarely within the fine entertainment tradition (fictional and otherwise) of getting a piece of legislation across the finish line in American politics.

By slicing it so thin—a time period of say four months, and the pursuit of one arguably minor goal, with all of its untoward dangers and scanty rewards—we arrive at a distinctly American point of experience, which is this bone-deep appreciation for the greatness of Abraham Lincoln that I inherited from somewhere, here cast in such stark relief. You really see it plain. Lincoln is also dealing with the Civil War, of course, and the omnipresent hatred without any shreds of rationality that descends on him from all directions—the threat of assassination is even raised and foreshadowed at one point. Lincoln is also dealing with an emotionally wounded family, and evidently emotionally wounded himself, by his circumstances and destiny. Yet he is as steady as a rock always, with his eyes on the prize, and I believe it because it's what I know about him.

Of course, the Spielberg touch is felt most strongly in this focus. Leave it to Spielberg to find a way to wallow in the happy ending to one of the worst and most pervasively enduring institutions in human history, slavery, one that very nearly destroyed this country and may yet, as the reverberations are felt more strongly than ever with an African-American in the White House. The sharks have become the aliens have become the Jews have become the kidnapped and enslaved Africans—with every step the differences between ourselves and the "other," and all of their concomitant interactions, have been explicitly softened and humanized.

A typical Spielberg ploy early on raises this exasperated question: Why must so many characters know by heart the Gettysburg Address and cheerfully reproduce it at will, in ringing tones? But as always the better question with Spielberg is: Why did it affect me so? Because it did. I was deeply moved, and it made me cry both times I saw it—this ingeniously conceived spectacle, that so many not only knew those words but stood there and bravely said them out loud. It produced an effect as if I were hearing them for the first time myself, all the meaning and portent and terrible burden they bear, compressed into such potent language: "... from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Setting aside all the baggage about Abraham Lincoln, personal and shared, which of course is virtually impossible, takes us to the next natural question: Apart from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play? The answer is that there is at least one more extraordinary aspect of Lincoln, which is Daniel Day-Lewis's performance. The whole cast is fine—notably Sally Field as Mrs. Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as firebrand abolitionist leader Thaddeus Stevens, and James Spader as an irascible corrupt political operative with an unforgettable waddle—but Day-Lewis is uncanny, quiet, methodical, workmanlike even, inhabiting and evoking the spirit of Abraham Lincoln in every moment. It doesn't hurt that he has a profile that can pass for the penny image with a little beard work. But more than that he just is Abraham Lincoln, this powerful mythic figure who resides in so many of us, a familiar brooding presence. The debilitating depression, the moral clarity, the folksy ways of a man of the people, the imperfect father and husband, the deeply calculating politician—all these facets are simply absorbed and reflected back by Day-Lewis with preternatural effortlessness.

Is Lincoln great cinema, one of Spielberg's masterpieces? Too soon to tell—it's also blatant Oscarbait—but I'm inclined to think it's possible. It is rich with image and story and sweeping historical resonance. It has the salutary effect of making one proud to be American, particularly on the rare occasions when the otherwise remarkably restrained Day-Lewis flashes Lincoln's passion for the cause at hand, acknowledging with piercing clarity all at once Lincoln's own great power and his great powerlessness, at the crucible of this historical crossroads. Yes, Lincoln makes a show of how our system works, up to the challenge of justice, in the end capable of doing the right thing. That's a show we all like to see, and the fact that there is actually some truth to it in this case only makes it a greater pleasure to see done this well.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up. Something all the harder to do when the subject is so fresh like this. The O comparisons, while obvious, unavoidable (as you say, O, likes to make them often), and tendentious to the extreme, are very curious. Lincoln was elected a northerner against slavery but did not expect or want civil war. Accordingly, in his first years abolition took a backseat to ending the war and saving the "union." But through the course of events he came to realize that to save the union necessitated ending slavery. Whether O learns on the job anything as important-- like, say, middle class prosperity (including a rock secure social safety net), is more crucial to America's future than keeping big business and deep pocket campaign funding sources happy-- remains to be seen. Also think Kushner probably deserves extra credit for reeling in some of the annoying tendencies of Speilberg's past historical epic blockbusters. Anyway, thanks.