Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lincoln: A Movie Classic That’s Simultaneously Stately, Salty, and Safe

A Troubled Lincoln Surveys the Battlefield
     Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, has the deliberate pace and the extraordinary acting ensemble of a William Wyler classic and if it wasn’t for the cursing, which seems anachronistic, it could have been produced in the studio era as an allegory for World War II or the Cold War.  It has the momentum and rhythm of both a well-made and epic play.  It’s about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would seem a tight
focus, but it refers to a broad swath of American culture at that time and ends up a leisurely (glacial?) two and a half hours.

     Spielberg, surprisingly, emphasizes the words over the visuals in terms of telling the story and that’s a first for him.  Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is muted in hue so that it suggests Mathew Brady’s photography of that period without being monochromatic. One major problem, as Brenda pointed out, is that the movie is dark and it’s tough to pick out the characters at first and to know where to look. The battle scenes would be great if we hadn’t already seen their 20th century counterpart in Saving Private Ryan, but here they don’t move the plot forward. The action centers on the House of Representatives and wherever Lincoln turns up.  It’s all about the power of oral persuasion and that makes sense because it follows in that Wyler mode.  Spielberg puts his complete trust in Kushner, who wrote Angels in America and Homebody/Kabul, the three best American plays of the past twenty years, but . . . 

Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln
     Daniel Day Lewis is the secret weapon that makes the whole thing work and it would be inconceivable without him, especially so in the first hour.  The first scene begins as a dreary history lesson, except instead of filling us in on the story, three soldiers recite parts of the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln and egg him on to greater deeds.  What turns this on its ear is Lewis’s Lincoln because he seems to be simultaneously moved, taken aback, and amused by their behavior.  He’s the only major character who is not deluded by his self-importance and that both sets him apart and also allows for the greatest audience empathy.  He reminded me of Azdak, the crafty con man who finds himself as a judge in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle and then mysteriously moves on.  I didn’t love Lewis in Gangs of New York because he seemed to be channeling DeNiro, but otherwise he’s the greatest English-speaking film actor of his generation, bar none.  He’s flinty, mischievous, folksy, deeply engaged with others, and brilliant, but it’s only in seeing the whole performance that the viewer realizes he’s a genius (Lincoln and Lewis).

Tommy Lee Jones
     The rest of the cast ranges from excellent to award worthy, but what the actors have in common is that they look like they stepped out of 1865.  As the paid persuaders (Neil called them the Three Stooges), James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes. who looks like he could be overcoming tuberculosis, are the comic relief.  They’re an update of Shakespeare’s clowns.  Tommy Lee Jones has already been written about extensively and deservedly so, but his best scene is his last with a wonderful American actress, who rarely is given the chance to really shine, but she does here and that’s all I’m going to say because it’s about the only surprise in the story.  I could point out many performances, but there are two that really caught me.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln
Sally Field is tremendous as Mary Todd Lincoln.  She’s a couple of decades older than Mary Todd was at that time, but she looks the same age because of the lighting, the weight she acquired, and the severity of the hair and make up.  She felt that Spielberg would go with another performer after Lewis was cast, but Neil and I couldn’t think of another younger actress in the part.  Her wit and fierceness strike sparks and keep the first hour afloat.  Fortunately, the movie doesn’t delve deeply into her mental health as other movies have, but she suggests Mary Todd’s future.

Lee Pace as Fernando Wood
Lee Pace (Soldier’s Girl, Pushing Daisies) has the romantic dash of a young Olivier or Brando in his historical roles as Fernando Woods, the Democratic leader and Copperhead determined to stop passage of the amendment.  I hope this leads to major roles (and not as some superhero acting against a blue screen for ‘tween males and their suburban parents) for him because his talent and training are on full display without being overbearing.

     There are two things that struck me while watching this movie.  The first is that an octogenarian couple stumbled in about forty-five minutes after it began, knocked into a septuagenarian sitting in front of them, realized they were in the wrong theatre, then demanded that another woman on her way to the restroom hold the door for them because of – I assume – night blindness while they tottered out.  Rather than being annoyed, I was entertained by this more than what I was seeing onscreen.  The second is that toward the end, I said to Neil, “I wish this was about LBJ trying to pass the War on Poverty” or President Obama’s and Speaker Boehner’s relationship as they wrestle with the current federal budget.  I don’t think Americans support slavery nowadays (even Tea Partiers), but the questions of how to address economic equity and social justice while trying to grow our economy are passionately controversial.  That’s where Lincoln misses the juice of Argo.  As a primer on how politicians work in the present and are remembered as statesmen, Lincoln is an excellent history lesson.

Dexter Spends a Late Night on the Set of Lincoln

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