Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Great Emancipator

Taking place in the months after the Gettysburg address, Steven Spielberg's latest film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and based on the Dorris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals, tells the fascinating story of the passage of the 13th Amendment, the amendment that would abolish slavery. There aren't many great historical political dramas in the history of film. The Battle of Algiers and All the President's Men are, I suppose, the two classics, but if we break the genre into historical political films about the passage of a law, those are certainly rare. Lincoln is not only a great historical political drama, it's a near masterpiece and one of Spielberg's best accomplishments. Period. I just saw a free advanced screening, so for once, I'll say a few things about it before most others have seen it--I might even have seen it before most film critics. Cool.

First,  Day-Lewis will win the Academy Award. I can almost guarantee it--or, I would be shocked if he didn't. I can't imagine a better performance. It's a remarkably subtle characterization, especially considering his ridiculously over-the-top, overly theatrical performances in both Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood--both of which were a bit too much for me. In Lincoln, he plays a soft-spoken, pensive, psychologically complex, almost frail and seemingly vulnerable Lincoln. A kind but tormented president, Lincoln is troubled with the blood spilled and great sacrifices given daily on the battlefields of the Civil War, troubled by the fact that he recently lost his young son, troubled that he, as president, cannot grieve for him, and troubled that his eldest son wants more than anything to join the Union cause and fight. Lincoln is witty, warm, forgiving, and angry when he needs to be. He is a great listener, a man famous for placing former rivals in his cabinet, and a great storyteller. He always knows just the right story to tell in just the right moment. In one scene, his secretary of war storms off during a particularly tense moment, yelling that he can't take another God-damn story. But everyone else seems eager to listen.

And all of this praise is coming from someone who doesn't think very highly of Spielberg. In fact, Spielberg is one of the most overrated directors. His films are fun, popcorn fair, made for a mostly mindless mass audience. He almost always overdoes the musical score and cranks up the sentimentality with close-ups and lighting. I like Jaws well enough, and I'll always be a bit nostalgic for the Indiana Jones films, and first two Jurassic Park films were pretty fun, but I think Schindler's List is overrated. Rarely do we see Spielberg grappling with interesting ideas. He's usually only concerned with plot and character. This is why Lincoln surprised me. It was deliberate and stately, almost European in its pacing. There were a couple of cheesy Spielberg moments--one occurs right at the beginning where several soldiers start quoting the Gettysburg Address and the John Williams score plays in the background to make sure we know this is the moment we are supposed to be moved to tears. But mostly he tones down the sentimental music--at least compared to his other films. The fact that he has directed a moving and gripping drama about the passage of an amendment is saying something.

I wasn't a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones. He just sounds too much like Tommy Lee Jones and didn't disappear into his role. I couldn't get the person out of my head, whereas with Day-Lewis and Sally Field I could. But this is a fairly minor quibble.

What struck me from nearly the first moment was the relevance of the story. It was very difficult to get people from Lincoln's own party to support the amendment--and vastly more difficult to get the overtly racist Democrats to sign on. I couldn't help think about how difficult it was for President Obama to get the healthcare law passed. It's true that there wasn't bipartisan support, but there wasn't bipartisan support for the abolition of slavery either. The handful of Democrats who voted in its favor only did so because they were lame ducks and were promised lucrative political positions afterword. And it was a much more moderate amendment than the radical Republican wing wanted. Stevens and others wanted not just to free slaves but to give blacks the right to vote.

It was a monumental task, and Lincoln had to lie and cheat a little to get it done. Maybe honesty is a bit overrated.

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