Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Clothed in Immense Power

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's Lincoln begins with a short battle scene depicting black Union soldiers and white Confederate soldiers hacking away at each other in a vast field of mud and brown puddles. As a visual metaphor for what's to come, this could be, and probably has been, considered a bit on the nose. However, when you consider that what's to come is very specifically and even literally about stopping that very thing from happening anymore, you kind of have to step back and say "'re not wrong." On top of that, you have the battle itself, and how it's portrayed. These soldiers aren't crouched behind trees or hedges, firing gusts of smoke at each other. No, this is after that, and the two armies have slammed together, and here, for I think maybe the hundredth time, Steven Spielberg proves himself to be one of the smartest, observant, and unflinching directors of visceral and cold-blooded violence working today, of any status, working with any level of budget, or wielding any amount of power. These soldiers are shown as being absolutely desperate to kill their enemy, and doing so without a rifle, or rather without the distance between you and your target needed to make a rifle effective, proves much more difficult than you'd think. The most striking image from this battle scene shows a Confederate soldier being beaten and pushed down into the mud, the three or four Union soldiers above him stepping on his face to drive him under the muck and water so that he'll choke or drown or whatever will happen to him that will finally stop his heart. Spielberg is very willing and able to juxtapose the clear righteousness of one side with the brutality they're called upon to engage in. This makes that brutality either just, or just a fact, or maybe something else, depending on the film, and depending on you. I'm nearly certain that virtually no other filmmaker has the balls to do this the way Spielberg does it, but he made Hook that one time, so fuck him I guess.

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.
This, in very small nutshell form, is a big part of the brilliance of Spielberg and Kushner's film. One of the things that the director, the writer, and, probably more than them, Daniel Day-Lewis nail is the presentation of a man who weilds enormous influence and power, but who is not, perhaps, some kind of circus freak, or robot, or myth, or the kind of dope who is not exasperatedly aware that he is at all times on a public stage. Before going further, I'd like to note that after thinking about Lincoln for several days, and wondering how I might go about writing it up, it occurred to me that the real difficulty of explaining to those who haven't seen it what makes Lincoln such an absorbing, quietly thrilling, and, for me, deeply moving experience, is that it says a lot of things that are very trite but only if you say them. Meaning, Linoln expresses these things, and you see them but don't hear them. I now have to say them. I now have to say that while discussing his desire to pass the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery throughout the United States, however much this might jeopardize peace negotiations with the Confederacy, with his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Spielberg at one point has Day-Lewis's Lincoln on his hands and knees, in a slow, old (though at only 56 years of age, as Lincoln would have been at the time, maybe less old than clumsily tall) bent way, tending to the fire in the fireplace. Why? Because he's just a regular dude, guys! So perhaps you see my problem here. But the problem is mine; it is not Kushner's, or Spielberg's, and it certainly isn't Day-Lewis's, who inhabits the character with the full understanding that a man as great and who shleps around as much historical weight as Lincoln can only become more impressive the less he is mythologized.

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.
As you have probably gathered from the cast I've listed so far, Lincoln is rather packed recognizable faces and names, big and small, all talented, and pretty much all perfectly cast. In this way, and I suppose others, the film is very much like David Fincher's Zodiac, where the philosophy seemed to be, though I don't actually know if Fincher was thinking along these lines, that with such a vast collection of minor but important characters, it might behoove the filmmaker to help his audience out and cast good actors they recognize, in order to keep track. A lot of people smirk at this kind of casting, but I don't think they realize the lifeline they're being offered. Lincoln's cast boasts, in addition to those actors already mentioned, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Gloria Reuben, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, S. Epatha Merkerson, Walton Goggins, and others with whom I'm less familiar. But that's quite a lineup, and you know what, they're all good. For pretty much his whole career, Spielberg and his casting directors -- Avy Kaufman in this case -- have displayed an almost unerring sense for either the best choice possible for a given role, or at least the most interesting. Look at Jaws. Everybody in that movie. Truffaut in Close Encounters. Newcomers like Barry Pepper in Saving Private Ryan. Or odd choices that somehow just work, like Enrico Colantoni, then known best for starring in the sitcom Just Shoot Me, in a small part as the murderer who sends Gigolo Joe fleeing in A.I.. Even in Lincoln, Jared Harris is frankly badly miscast, on paper anyway, as Ulysses S. Grant, and while I'm not about to claim that Harris's actual performance proves that he was the only man for the job, his performance is still interesting. He ain't Grant, but he's interesting. On the other hand, IMDB informs me that appearing in Lincoln in the role of "Wounded Soldier" is Kevin Kline. This is maybe gilding the lily a bit.

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 the record, I consider the above to be another example of something that is not trite to do, but is to say. Fortunately, that's not all that's being offered by Day-Lewis. As it happens, I'm reading Some Do Not... by Ford Madox Ford (and I seem to be taking my own sweet time with it, but anyway), and earlier today I read a passage that I think is not irrelevant to this performance. It goes:

...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.
Almost everybody with a major speaking roll gets some good lines thrown their way (and Kushner is willing to get into the dirt, too; he doesn't always go Arthur Miller-writing-The Crucible on his dialogue. I don't know how many times the MPAA allows you to use the word "fuck" and still maintain a PG-13 rating, but I counted two, and James Spader got them both), but the only actor allowed to tear off hunks as big if not bigger than Daniel Day-Lewis is Tommy Lee Jones. Jones, as so many people have already said, is pretty terrific here, but he's helped rather a lot by Kushner, who clearly loves Stevens, and what would at that time have been his radical politics, at least as much as he loves Lincoln. Who wouldn't come off well slinging the kind of shit Jones's Thaddeus Stevens hits his anti-abolitionist opponents with? Lee Pace, who plays pro-Confederacy Congressman Fernando Wood, gets his ass so thoroughly handed to him time and again by Jones that he must have wished that maybe his guy could have been written with that kind of swagger. But I don't know, man, you probably shouldn't have supported slavery like that.

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.


Taidan said...

That is a wonderfully written and thought-out review. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, sir. The best article I've read about "Lincoln," and I've read a lot of articles about "Lincoln."

bill r. said...

Thank you both.

Andrew K. said...

This is a fine write-up of a film I only cared little for.

I don't mean to glib, but a friend had posed the question I really do wonder with LINCOLN if some element of truly appreciating it rests on being American (or at least directly appreciative of American history). Inasmuch as in theory this type of talky drama seems like something that would explicitly appeal to me, I found myself being so unmoved by much of it. Even to the point where I'm appreciative, but not terribly excited about Daniel's work. (Sally's performance is my favourite thing of the film, which is in some aspects strange because I know many ardent fans of the film consider her to be the weak-link.)

(That being said, when I have the time I really am curious to rewatch it. And, your article makes me even more eager to consider your arguments against a new viewing.)

Adam Ross said...

I also noticed the Kevin Kline casting in the credits, but upon further examination, even though he spells his name the exact same way, it is not the same Kline we loved in "A Fish Called Wanda" and many others. He's just a dude.

There's a lot to be said about the visual style and lighting. While it seems obvious that there wouldn't be any overhead neon lighting in the capital and White House, it is still striking to see the blinding sunlight coming in through the windows contrasted with the dark shadows draped over other sets. I also appreciated how Spielberg stayed away from any "Oh, let's take a tour of the White House!" sequences.

Towser Puce Juice said...

No it's THE Kevin Kline!