the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, December 16, 2012

LINCOLN (2012)

Logging Lincoln

The first showing of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was packed. This is unusual for a relatively rural movie house, even during a Friday night of the Christmas holiday season.  The grey-haired crowed was pleased and there were even some applause during the closing credits.  A younger member of the audience, obviously dragged there by a well-intentioned elder, was less euphoric.  “Lincoln sure spent a lot of time talking in that house”. Although the young man probably wasn’t a seasoned moviegoer his criticism is on the mark and goes to the heart of the stylistic problem with Lincoln.  This work fails to be a movie driven by cinematic movement but a photographic representation of a “well-made play” driven by soliloquies. This is the wikipedia entry for form of a “well-made play”:

The form has a strong neoclassical flavor, involving a very tight plot and a climax that takes place very close to the end of the action, with most of the story taking place before the action of the play; much of the information regarding such previous action would be revealed through thinly veiled exposition. Following that would be a series of causally-related plot complications.

Spielberg’s work doesn’t exactly match this definition as the exposition is about as thinly veiled as a peacock on a snow drift.... but it was carefully crafted and hit its marks. It is odd to take issue with this film as most contemporary features are shoddily made and badly written.  It is, however, important to understand the context of this work. Steven Spielberg,  America’s most popular and successful director has undertaken a portrait of Abraham Lincoln,  American’s most revered President.  This is serious stuff... at least from Spielberg’s POV. The director has taken a special interest in the plight of African Americans.  Lincoln is his third feature examining “our peculiar institution”. (The other two: The Color Purple and Amistad).   Spielberg turned 18 when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was less than 6 months old. No doubt the racial struggle during the 1960s made an impression.  It is not surprising that “Lincoln” fails to be a biopic but rather the story of the President legally destroying slavery by carefully steering Congress to adopt the 13th amendment.  This is an interesting dramatic choice given Lincoln’s life. A few years back I took a tour of  the library of Congress was was told: aside from William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln is THE most popular subject for book writers.  I would note the new museum dedicated to our 16th President hosts The Lincoln Tower. This is a visual demonstration of his popularity with publishers : “the tower totals approximately 6,800 books. At three stories high, the tower represents just a fraction of the 15,000 titles written about Lincoln”. The myriad of topics include: his sexuality, his contentious relations with his family, his morphing attitudes towards race relations, his obscure origins, his fragile health, his depression, his love of the theater, his work as a lawyer..... and yet Spielberg chose the complicated political morass surrounding the updating of the Constitution as his centerpiece.

His screenplay was crafted by one of America’s premiere playwrights, Tony Kushner, and one of the country’s leading Presidential historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin. The idea was that the telling of this particular Constitutional struggle would illuminate the man.  Kushner did wonders painting the demon-like Roy Cohen in Angels in America; perhaps he could show the better angels of his nature and give us Lincoln. Kearns Goodwin would keep it historically accurate. Spielberg would handle the magic and spare no expense with the best acting and craft talent resulting in a serious general audience portrait of our most famous, yet enigmatic, President. There is a desire to define and honor our nation’s greatest leader.  Ironically the result a paean to all the things we think we know rather than a radical unfolding of that quixotic face that stares out from the five dollar bill. This film wants us to think of father Abraham more in the manner of father George.  Spielberg forgets that George stars out at us on our 1 dollars bills with a noble, direct gaze. Lincoln, in the 5 dollar portrait, looks off to the side in the same direction as the Mona Lisa.

Daniel Day Lewis continues his tradition of turning in a performance that overshadows his director and fellow cast-members. He IS the Lincoln we expect - saintly, self-deprecating, folksy and fierce. One laments the supporting cast who seem merely polished and professional.  There were solid performances and yet Lewis seemed to catapult the film into “what might have been”; whereas Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field et al were only as good as the surroundings.  Ironically the slew of African American performers were hard hit with a the dramatic challenge of being representatives of goodness under oppression; a lesser form of the “magic negro”. Once again I turn to Wikipedia:

The magical negro is a supporting stock character in American Cinema who is portrayed coming to the aid of a film's white protagonists. These characters, who often possess special insight or mystical powers, have been a long tradition in American fiction.

In this case there are no psychics or superheroes trying to help whitey. Spielberg’s black cast channels the Christian savior in their magnanimity. One might suspect an angry vengeful disposition given the conditions surrounding 19th century slavery, but Quentin Tarentino’s Django cannot be unchained in this universe.  Whereas Tarentino channels the rage of the 1970s blaxploitation heavies such as Mandingo - who want to kill whitey for for being evil; Spielberg has a never-ending parade of black people who are as well-mannered, well groomed and amiable as Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It is, strangely, two sides of the same coin.   It is certainly progress when one considers Step’n’Fetchit, the most popular African American movie star of the early 20th century, made a career of exhibiting the most vile, feckless black stereotypes.  The beneficent mirror image, however, does deny the black characters the ability to be fully human. It is important to note that Spielberg should not be considered racist as his typecasting crosses color-lines. Noone is ‘real’ in this ‘historical reenactment’.  There are a slew of encounters between the beneficent Father Abraham and a number of earnest, coiffed, articulate African American characters in which the evils of slavery and the dignity of humanity are dutifully discussed.  It would be interesting to know if Kearns Goodwin took issue. It is a well-known historical fact that the 16th President’s views on blacks were evolving and would not be in accord with present day progressive attitudes.  The man we view in the cinema is NOT the man who at one time proposed sending blacks back to Africa. Then again Spielberg might see artistic license as more important than complete accuracy. This is the crux of the problem. The hallmark card visuals are merely cloying but the substance is troubling. Spielberg has a vision of what is necessary to produce an important serious portrait of this important serious historical figure. The result is neither historical, serious or important.

Lincoln’s family has always been a treasure trove of intrigue to the general public. George Washington might have been the first President; but he was his wife’s second husband. Martha had an immense fortune. These facts might come as a surprise to most as the Washingtons are sealed in the cool white gossip-free marble of hagiography. Lincoln’s saintliness has always had the common touch of marital upheaval.  The public knows  Mrs. Lincoln as “troubled”.  Spielberg has decided that the best way to approach this sensitive topic is to paint her as an overly emotional woman who failed to managed the loss of her favorite child. There is a scene in which she accuses her husband of wanting to lock her in an insane  asylum to conveniently shield him from her justifiable grief.   The fact that he fails to dispute this accusation leaves a uneasy ripple in the warm-fuzziness. Was honest Abe trying to lock up the troublesome mrs? The effect is about as jarring as an 18th century outhouse suddenly appearing in the Colonial Williamsburg theme-park.  No doubt Kearns Goodwin approved of this historical fact - but the truth seems to be swimming upstream. Mrs. Lincoln’s issues predated the death of her son William. In fact it predates the death of her other son Edward, who does not exist in this Lincoln family. “Molly” Lincoln suffered severe mental illness which bore the hallmarks of bi-polar depressive disorder.  She eventually ended up in a mental hospital being committed by her son Robert. Truth should not be a slave to fact in rendering art; but here truth seems completely lost. Lincoln’s chose to marry a VERY VERY difficult person who had extreme emotional issues.  That is NOT the couple portrayed in the film.  It should also be noted that the President himself was not the paradigm of mental health PRIOR to taking office.  He bouts with depression as a young man have been well documented. Once again that is not the character on screen. Spielberg could claim that their is a broader truth in what he shows. Molly was difficult but bore many ills with dignity. Lincoln himself was dour that was merely exacerbated by the carnage and horror which he was forced to orchestrate. Their deficits are illustrated with complete with thumbnail explanations as to their cause.  Unfortunately the director’s explanations and white lies muddle an understanding of the characters.  Spielberg, with the imprimatur of a credited historian, gets it completely wrong. It would be difficult to “know” Lincoln, but the idea that Mary Lincoln was merely difficult and oversensitive, and that Mr. Lincoln was a befuddled husband misses the mark.

She was really crazy. He was a real depressive. He certainly knew what he was getting into.  These obscured “facts” tell me more about Lincoln that two hours of clumsy Tony Kushner dialogue such as Mary saying something to the effect of: “you always held it against Robert (the eldest son) that he was born because it forced you to marry me” or how about this turkey: “People will remember you as great and me as crazy”.  I’m paraphrasing but you get the idea that broad, character-defining themes are handled with the subtly of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting.  Perhaps this analogy is a disservice to Rockwell as his job was to marshal the power saccharine cliches to sell papers. Spielberg is trumpeting this film as... well, serious stuff.  Once again artistry has license to cut and paste, but not to mislead.  Lincoln’s distance with Robert probably deserves its own separate feature to cover the vast ocean of family tension.  This film’s harping on his mother’s refusal to allow Robert to join the service is placed squarely on in the coffin of the beloved William. Mrs. Lincoln’s past instability and loss of another child puts this in a different light. It also shows the President willingness to support her, over his eldest son, to be somewhat darker than Spielberg’s telling.  In addition the nature of Lincoln’s overindulgence and closeness to Tad fails to mention Tad’s cleft pallet which rendered his speech incomprehensible. This is the dramatic equivalent of mounting a production of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, and leaving out Tiny Tim’s crutch.  Seems an odd omission; but it was no doubt a casualty in the intense battle for truth back at production headquarters.

One can well imagine Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Kushner and Ms. Kearns Goodwin pouring over the mountains of material. One can feel the vast amount of pressure it must have taken to mold this sprawling narrative into Spielberg’s oeuvre.  In a sense it must have been an unintentional re-hashing of the vast political infighting that let to the passage of the 13th amendment. It is VITAL we include THIS. It is PARAMOUNT we don’t touch THAT. I’m sure, in the vast network of top departments and people, there were lobbyist of sorts who petitioned for inclusion of major events in Lincoln's life - the “Appottomax Court House” camp “won” - it is IN - the “Ford’s Theater” camp “lost” - there is no assassination scene... ditto for Gettsyburg.... although “the address” makes an appearance. One can only imagine the delight felt by some at Kushner’s cleverness: four soldiers at a busy army camp near the front, two black and two white, dutifully recite the speech to a well lit, seemingly unencumbered Lincoln, who seems to be posing for the monument on the mall. One suspects Kearns Goodwin missed that production meeting.... lets hope so.

In the end we have a clear, albeit simplified, narrative of how and why the 13th amendment passed along with uneven forays into family life and Washington personalities.  It will come as a surprise to many how the President’s insistence on this piece of legislation hinged on a very well-reasoned legal argument about how his banning of slavery could be reversed at a latter date. Lincoln believed the whole horrible business of war might re-ignite again.  There is the sub-plot of the Confederate peace offering which almost derailed the passage. In other words the idea was peace could be had WITHOUT completely settling the slavery question. Lincoln, through a series of cunning moves which involved lying to his allies, stuck to his guns and the measure was passed. We have the crafty maneuvers... but Spielberg fails to give us the man; or more correctly the person he reveals is molded by the future.  We have a representation of good father Abraham; rather than the genuine article.  There is a strange arrogance in this film which stems from the idea that hiring the best will render the truth. 

Interestingly the most successful sections of this film are the director’s brief re-creations of the battles and the aftermath on the field.  It is the same in Private Ryan. That film faltered after a stunning re-enactment of the Normandy invasion. Spielberg is more adapt at re-drawing actual places and events... rather than the individuals.  Lincoln becomes merely saintly, strong and clever.... Perhaps a repositioning of the battle scenes, specifically the opening sequence, might have given the audience more of a feeling for the steeliness of the President’s actions in potentially drawing out the war. It’s one thing to look back with hindsight and realize that he followed the right path. It’s another to see the carnage first hand and wonder what kind of stuff it must have taken to, as one recent President put it, “stay the course”. Victory has many fathers... but imagine if the war had dragged on for another half decade. Lincoln might have been viewed as a lawyerly perfectionist who toyed with hundreds of thousands of lives and his legacy might have steered closer to his predecessor and successor - the little remembered Buchanan and much maligned Johnson. Modern President’s have learned the hard way that self righteous belief in the ‘greater good’ has not always served to bolster their reputations; neither has skirting the law - something Spielberg’s  Lincoln freely confesses.  The greatness of Lincoln lies in the grey of doubt. Spielberg is more comfortable with bold strokes of black and white .  The director seems to banish the man who once said: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right”.

Spielberg’s Lincoln echoes the words recently removed from the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Washington mall:

“I was a drum major for justice peace and righteousness.”

The correct quote from Dr. King’s sermon reads:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

It is a distinction that probably be lost Mr. Spielberg as his Lincoln embodies a fierce knowing sense of justice.  Lincoln was a great fan of Shakespeare.  In fact Kushner lightly peppers the President’s dialogue with subtle references to the bard. Nothing too overt which was a welcome relief from a script that seems to want to prove that everyone had done their homework.  In short Spielberg sees the 16th President as a Henry V of good: A brash warrior/politician who cloaks his offense in a playful avuncular manner but keeps his eye on the prize of victory. What little I know makes me think more of Prince Hamlet: A man who inherits a disastrous political situation and the journey towards righteousness is bound by a constant questioning of the world around him in order to understand the meaning of victory.  There is little doubt that the Abraham Lincoln of 1861, who might have struck a bargain with the South, was not the same as the Abraham Lincoln of 1865. This does not make either bad or good. The bottom line is that the greatness of Lincoln lies in his ‘not knowing’; not his ‘knowing’. Mr. Spielberg, despite the legion of highly paid staff, missed the forest for the trees.  But no worries. Many in theater didn’t seem to notice. They clapped. They were very enthusiastic. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the other movies showing in the same time were: Skyfall, Life of Pi, Killing Them Softly, Playing for Keeps and Wreck It Ralph.  Certainly Mr. Spielberg’s historical foray should earn him great praise and many awards. But now that it’s over it’s time to get back to business. It has been revealed  Spielberg’s next two directorial projects are: Indiana Jones 5 and Robopocalypse.

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