Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Clothed in Immense Power
From there, Lincoln moves to a scene where Abraham Lincoln himself (Daniel Day-Lewis) is meeting in an informal, support-the-troops sort of way, with Union soldiers at camp. We see him speaking with four soldiers specifically (among them Lukas Haas, in a cameo), two white and two black (which, again...), who are trying to remember the words to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. As three of the soldiers depart to join up with their companies, the fourth, played by David Oyelowo, who earlier in the scene had directly voiced to Lincoln his concerns about the fates of freed slaves after the war, picks up the Address where the others had faltered. As he recites it, he smiles, turns, and walks away, finishing the speech as he leaves. This moment, the turning away with a smile a repeating one of the most famous speeches in American history to the man who originally delivered it, is not, I would say, a sign that Lincoln is going to be the work of the Good Spielberg, as I shall call him here for the sake of economy, the one who made Jaws and Munich and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and, well most of the rest of his film, but rather the Spielberg responsible for Amistad and War Horse -- the Sap, as perhaps I shall refer to him. But anyone who thinks that moment defines the whole scene hasn't been paying attention. The key to this scene, and the key it proveds to the rest of the film to come, is how Lincoln is introduced. The first words spoken by Lincoln in the whole film -- and I admit I may not have the line right, but it's close -- are "Which battalion are you from?" And these words are spoken off-camera. The camera will pull back from a shot of Oyelewo and Colman Domingo, playing one of the other soldiers, to gradually reveal Lincoln's shoulder, neck, the back of his head. Eventually, Spielberg cuts to a full shot of the man, sitting and chatting, but never looming, never reeking of importance or even history. There's even a hint here, in Day-Lewis's performance, of impatience, of Lincoln's wish that these men weren't so intent on talking his goddamn ear off. The first we see of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, he's being a politician, and a tired one.
Probably it would help me out a bit to get into what Lincoln is about, apart from the obvious. As I hinted at earlier, and as you all are no doubt already aware, Lincoln is not one of those hopelessly sprawling birth-to-death biopics that make me want to pull a Leland Palmer against my bedroom wall, but rather a very narrowly focused account of the last months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, during which time he sought to end the Civil War and/or pass the highly divisive and legally complex 13th Amendment. Meeting both goals was certainly the preferred outcome, but as the film makes clear, a negotiated peace with the Confederacy, who was by this time losing the war rather badly yet unwilling to cave in completely, would be not-quite-but-nearly impossible if what Lincoln offered them was, by their reckoning, less than nothing. But against the advice of Seward, for political reasons, and Hal Holbrook’s Frances Preston Blair, who wants peace more than anything, and even looked at askance by “rabid” abolitionists like James Ashley (David Costabile) and Asa Vintner Litton (Stephen Spinnell), who, under the tutelage of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), had been the amendment’s spearhead in the Senate, believing that Lincoln is simply playing chess, Lincoln is nevertheless determined. And however askance his underlings may view this move by the President, Stevens, a radical, is unwilling to succumb to their kneejerk cynicism -- he'd rather give Lincoln the benefit of the doubt, probably because at this stage it's the best shot they'll have of finally ridding the country of slavery. Alongside the war and politics, we see Lincoln at home, as much as he can be, with Mary Todd (Sally Field), still raw and spilling out everywhere after the death of their son Willie three years earlier, and their young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who is fascinated with a collection of daguerreotypes of slaves that his parents occasionally have to take away from him as though they were toys he's spending too much time with. Later the three of them will be joined by their adult son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who quite frankly will piss around a bit with is whole "I'm a grownup now, Dad" act.
But of course the show is Daniel Day-Lewis. And I have to be very careful here. My inclination is to praise his work in Lincoln, and really his career, in terms that might be seen as insensible gushing. Then again if I pull back too much, I’ll be left with “He is good. He is good at acting” and my full appreciation of his performance will, I believe, be lost. So. As in so many things, there’s a certain amount of subjectivity at work, and especially in the case of Day-Lewis’s performance in Lincoln, because I think all Americans have some idea in their minds of what Abraham Lincoln was like. It’s an idea based on other actors who’ve played him, and certain contemporaneous accounts of the man that tell us, for instance, that his voice was somewhat high-pitched, and he liked to tell stories, and he was funny. All of that has been absorbed into both Day-Lewis’s performance and in Kushner’s script, but if that was all it was then we wouldn’t have the movie we have. What Day-Lewis manages here is to somehow confirm our vague notions of what Lincoln was really like (he was just a terrific guy, and so on) and show them up as almost hopelessly empty. It doesn’t escape me that in real terms, this is just another actor giving another performance, and except on a technical level, meaning that Day-Lewis was able to draw on more historical evidence about Lincoln the man than most actors have been able to, I have no more reason to believe that he’s any closer to the bone than, say, Henry Fonda was in Young Mr. Lincoln. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t leave the theater feeling as though I’d just been as close to seeing the real Lincoln talk and plot and joke and get angry and slam tables as I’m ever going to get. This kind of being the point, I think. And how does Day-Lewis do it? You might have to ask him that, though I doubt you’ll get very far. Just as an example, though, watch him in the scene where Lincoln tells the famous anecdote about Ethan Allen in England, and the picture of George Washington hanging in the outhouse. This is one of many times in the film where Lincoln tells a story either to amuse those around him and himself, or to do that as well as illustrating a point he’s trying to make, but I was particularly taken with this one because it’s such a famous joke (I’m assuming the story is apocryphal), and it’s written to be delivered by a man who is a gifted storyteller, as Lincoln, we’re assured, was. This is a very specific thing. It’s something Kushner can write well, but Day-Lewis has to tell it, and to tell it like a good storyteller would, with the right cadence and inflections, the body language and casual confidence that this bit is going to kill.
...for it is impossible to stand up for ever against the obloquy of your kind and remain unhurt in the mind. If you hunch your shoulders too long against a storm your shoulders will grow bowed...
There's a hell of a lot more that's bowing Lincoln's shoulders than just the accusations of dishonesty and selfish politicking -- there's the future of the country he's been elected to lead, as well as the future of the people who have been cruelly enslaved for generations. But it's all there, all of it, the accusations of dishonesty, too, and Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as a man of great kindness, but that kindness has become very tired -- there's a beautiful moment near the beginning where Lincoln lays down on the floor next to his sleeping son before carrying him off to bed. However, there's not just warmth here; there's also fire, and at times the desire to hold onto his weary kindness slips, and he explodes, for instance at Mary when he thinks she wants all the grief over the death of Willie to herself, or he gets frankly really fed up by all these dinks in his goddamn cabinet who will not, first, acknowledge that they are all standing on the precipice of history, and that now (a hugely important word in the film, which you can tell even from the trailers) is the time to fix this country's moral compass, for once and for all. And second, you know, to recognize that he's the President of the United States. Tony Kushner's script is easily the best one Spielberg has had to work with since Munich, which was, hey look at that, also written by Kushner, but this one is great for reasons that you rarely see even in Spielberg's best movies. This is a film that loves the English language, and Kushner is obviously having a high old time messing around with the way it was spoken by smart, witty Americans in the 19th century. To my point, the line that Lincoln delivers near the end, when the chips are really down, about being a man who, as the President, "is clothed in immense power" is great in its fiery rebuke, and great as a moment when Lincoln advises that those who oppose him on this amendment should maybe stop kidding themselves.
Lincoln is being described as a film that finds Steven Spielberg reining in his style rather aggressively, and further that in terms of any style at all you will in fact only really find it in the dialogue and the acting. I think what these people mean, but maybe they don't know they mean it, is that Spielberg isn't succumbing to the creative impulses that drive him which those people don't happen to like. Because Lincoln is a fairly gorgeous film, visually. This is not only due to Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's approach to the lighting of their scenes, although their understanding of what rooms must have looked like at the time, with only candle and sunlight available for illumination, and how they use the natural result of that does at times reach Barry Lyndon levels of splendor. But there is a lot of grace in Spielberg's work here. There's a bluntness, too, as with the violence mentioned earlier, and a rather horrible sight witnessed by Robert Todd Lincoln at an Army hospital, but at times it's so elegant -- there's a shot involving Lincoln, Tad, and curtains, at a crucial moment in the film, that I'd count as one of the most beautiful things Spielberg has ever put on film. He, Spielberg, even gets weirdly stylized at a couple of moments. Anyone who has seen the film will know what I'm talking about here, but for the record I wasn't crazy about the candle bit, but rather liked Lincoln's dream. In any case, anyone who thinks Spielberg isn't pushing himself here isn't paying attention.
After I saw Lincoln, I made a joke to my wife, and then to other people because apparently I thought it was so damn funny, that went "Man, I really fucking hate John Wilkes Booth right now." It was a joke, but I meant it. In this film, Kushner, Spielberg, and Daniel Day-Lewis give such a specific personality, and such a specific life, to Abraham Lincoln, that witnessing just a portion of his existence spent under the burden to do good, made his assassination, which is in the film but not on-screen, absolutely infuriating, now almost 150 years after the fact. I realize there's a political component to film like this, one that reaches beyond 1865, but I do wonder if the complexity of that component has been fully recognized. The short version of my thoughts on this are that you can very easily bring in and take out some very flattering things to do with contemporary politics, or damning things, or whatever the hell you happen to feel like. But I believe that trying to open the film up like that does a disservice to its own narrow historical and moral focus, and to its specific subject. I left Lincoln thinking that there has never been another man like Abraham Lincoln, and our nation was deeply fortunate to have him as our President when we could not have done with anyone else. And some bastard snuck up behind him one night and shot him.