Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Film Divided: Lincoln


My favorite shot in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln — indeed, one of my favorite shots of the year — observes the titular president exiting the telegraph office in the still of the night, leaving behind two young, awestruck clerks who have just been a private audience to the president making one of those difficult principled decisions for which he is celebrated and beloved all these years later. Capturing the room from an elevated angle, the wide shot holds steady as Abraham Lincoln gets up from his chair, puts on his trademark stovepipe hat and walks across the room and then into the background, through a doorway and out of view, like an actor leaving the stage. It's a reverent shot, allowing the reverberations of the moment to sink in and affording Lincoln the stately grace of conviction. And yet, even here, with Lincoln's godlike aura as bright as ever, his ordinariness is also in view — in his hunched posture and feeble shuffle. This duality is at the core of our unending fascination with Lincoln — the remarkable president who was in many ways an unremarkable figure — and what Spielberg's film does best, and what that shot does perfectly, is embed the president's heroic qualities within a modest man.

In an era in which movie audiences are inundated with superhuman characters who strut through every scene with arrogance in their veins and witty one-liners at the tip of their tongue, it's a breath of fresh air to spend time with a character who is merely super and human. But it's even more refreshing to see Lincoln, specifically, portrayed with such nuance. Oh, he's still a saintly figure, make no mistake about it, and the smartest guy in any room. But Spielberg's film allows us to get beyond that, to see the father who awkwardly crawls on the ground to allow his sleepy son to climb on to his back and be hauled off to bed, to see the husband who struggles to manage the coiled emotions of his high-strung wife, to see the former Illinois lawyer who must admit to one of his black servants that her world is mostly beyond his comprehension, and so on. Daniel Day-Lewis is an actor of tremendous power, but what he does in this starring role is emphasize Lincoln's basic human qualities. We can feel his aches and pains, and through his ungainly gait and pinched voice — not to mention that scruffy beard and unruly hair — Day-Lewis's Lincoln mesmerizes not with his awesomeness but with the lack thereof. More than any portrayal I've seen, this Lincoln gives a sense of what it must have been like to be in the presence of the real man.

Alas, when president isn't on the screen, telling tales and searching his soul, Spielberg's movie lacks both subtlety and magic. Written by Tony Kushner and inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, Lincoln forgoes the bloody battles of the Civil War to focus instead on a political fight: the president's attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to permanently abolish slavery, so that the previously issued Emancipation Proclamation couldn't be revoked as a war measure once the union was restored. It's a worthy topic, first for its basic historical significance and also for what these dug-in standoffs might suggest about the divisions of our current federal government. But Kushner and Spielberg approach this material with only selective seriousness, and they never convincingly cast Lincoln as the underdog, no matter how many times his cabinet explains how difficult it will be to get the necessary votes. Here, the pro-slavery lot is made up of archetypal villains, with icy stares and sharp features, while the anti-slavery crowd, led by Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens, in a performance as ridiculous as the wig on his head, sits around waiting to slay their mouth-breathing counterparts with cleverness and righteousness. Indeed, the deck is stacked the entire time — in Lincoln's favor.

To be fair, this is a delicate subject. Clearly, Spielberg doesn't want to dignify racism by suggesting the pro-slavery argument was ever anything except a vile atrocity, and that's understandable. But by reducing Lincoln's opposition to cartoon characters, Spielberg undercuts the significance of the entire episode. In one instance of pure slapstick, a lobbyist played by James Spader kicks dirt on the man who just tried to shoot him, before scrambling to safety as the gunman laboriously reloads his weapon. In another, the entire House of Representatives erupts in outrage when someone suggests that giving freedom to blacks is a gateway to giving them voting rights, and thus a gateway to giving women the right to vote. "Oh, what silly, backward times these were," such scenes suggest, only to be followed by scenes in which Day-Lewis's Lincoln double-underlines the magnitude of the moment. ("The fate of human dignity is in our hands!" and so on.) The result is what Schindler's List might have felt like had it been populated by the Nazis from the Indiana Jones movies. Lincoln is a film tonally divided against itself, and it does not stand.

It doesn't move particularly well either. At 149 minutes, it's a plodding picture — rarely outright boring but only fleetingly gripping. Lincoln is probably the most dialogue-driven movie Spielberg has made, and as if to make up for the action deficiency he tries to milk every drop of drama from the climactic House vote, but the result is like something out of a Ron Howard movie, with lots of reaction shots and a helpful running tally from Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) in the gallery (because every competition needs a scoreboard). This error of excess is nearly redeemed by the ensuing scene, in which Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski find Lincoln in his office, silhouetted behind the curtains as he looks through his window at an America born anew. But Spielberg has never been one for understated conclusions, so Lincoln rolls on, with the surrender of the South, with an obligatory chronicling of the president's death, with a flashback to his second inaugural address and with a completely corny bedroom celebration scene for the triumphant Stevens, until the intimacy of Day-Lewis's portrayal is almost lost, as Lincoln's vices overwhelm its virtues.

49 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Wow, quite a takedown here Jason. I do not agree with it one iota, especially that final (scathing paragraph) Spielberg was correct in giving this study some emotional closure in the final ten minutes with the soft peddling on the assassination and the the re-enactment of the southern surrender. At any event, to assert that Day-Lewis' extraordinary and yes intimate two hours plus performance was remotely compromised by a conclusion that was both earned and fitting (but even if it were not as you assert).........well I just don't know what to say. The contention that the film is plodding of course comes down to personal taste. I didn't find it that way at all and was fascinated with the various political machinations and domestic turbulence, helped by a plethora of outstanding supporting performances (Field and Jones especially) and Kushner's studied and engrossing screenplay. I'm not so sure either that Lincoln needed to be painted as an underdog, and iun the end he came off as a noble-minded politician. Spielberg rightly averted the oratories that could have furnished cheap sentiment, and rightly pulled back, only intruding near the end and in some of the vital moments to gives the acting and writing some cinematic heft. Ron Howard? Spielberg and that "hack" are not ever in the same room. I believe Spielberg was right to ring every bit of drama out of the courtroom scene, as it not only stirred his viewers with one of the most crucial congressional votes in the nation's history, but it allowed the film to connect the intellectual and emotional dots. If the movie is indeed "dialogue-driven" as you rightly contend, what is the problem with trying to dramatically heighten the film's most immersice and entertaining segment? Why is this purposeful decision wrong? It seems Spielberg will bew damned if he does and damed if he doesn't though the film's superlative reviews (a good number from people who in the past have been highly critical) would seem to imply that his approach here was successful. I did not to be sure find the charismatic performance by Tommy Lee Jones to be ridiculous, though yeah the wig was silly-looking. I also do not at all see this film as tonally divided, and summarily reject your paragraph that begins with "To be fair...," though your astute observations do support your summary opinion.

This is an audacious, extraordinary piece of writing by one of the film blogosphere's best, and I never come away from this place with anything less than enlightenment. This is just a case of strong disagreement, and I felt it fair to enunciate on that strong divide.

You and I have always been friends and will remain so for good.

Sam Juliano said...

In looking over my response to you Jason, I think I was too harsh, focusing as I did on the major issues you had that brought you to the final conclusion. Your opening paragraphs offered an inspiring picture of Lincoln and Man, and the spectacular performance by Day-Lewis, which you seem to assert is of it's type one of the best you have ever seen. On all these exceptional and nuanced observations I am in complete agreement.

This is quite a breathtaking, beautifully-written sentence:

"But Spielberg's film allows us to get beyond that, to see the father who awkwardly crawls on the ground to allow his sleepy son to climb on to his back and be hauled off to bed, to see the husband who struggles to manage the coiled emotions of his high-strung wife, to see the former Illinois lawyer who must admit to one of his black servants that her world is mostly beyond his comprehension, and so on."

If my first comment came off as too militant, my apologies. I do love the film, and when I love a film my first instinct is to go to the mat. You saw the results. Ha!

Jason Bellamy said...

Sam: No need to apologize for going to the mat for a movie you love.

Indeed, on some points we simply have a subjective disagreement -- Tommy Lee Jones, for example. But there's some stuff here worth picking at a bit more ...

* "Spielberg was correct in giving this study some emotional closure..."

Emotional closure is great. But I think that's precisely what Spielberg has in that scene with Lincoln staring out his window, soon to be joined by his son, who he warmly embraces. THAT was a poignant final image. The rest, I must say, felt like Spielberg hastily touching all the bases: the South's surrender, Lincoln's death (he does handle that creatively, I give him that), a few more famous quotes, etc.

* "I'm not so sure either that Lincoln needed to be painted as an underdog."

But the movie does try to paint him as an underdog. Over and over again. And yet Spielberg doesn't seem interested in engaging with the anti-amendment point of view in any nuanced way.

* "Spielberg rightly averted the oratories that could have furnished cheap sentiment ..."

I think the conclusion I mentioned above has some cheap sentiment, but I actually agree with you for the most part on this one: indeed, for a movie that is so talk-heavy, Spielberg and Kushner don't go overboard with pulpit-pounding poetic oratory. The movie shows some restraint there.

* "Ron Howard? Spielberg and that "hack" are not ever in the same room."

On this one all I can say is, "If the reaction shots and constant underlining of the stakes fit ..."

In other words, Spielberg put himself in that room. I'm making a specific comparison to a specific approach -- not comparing their overall body of work or sensibilities.

* "If the movie is indeed "dialogue-driven" as you rightly contend, what is the problem with trying to dramatically heighten the film's most immersice and entertaining segment?"

No problem at all. None. But you can ride a horse hard without running it to its death. There's no debating that the House session should be a high point. I still feel the sequence goes overboard.

* I'm not expecting to turn you around on some of the things above. Just offering some clarifications.

Love the passion, Sam, even if I don't share it for this (quickly forgettable) film.

Hokahey said...

Jason - The shot of Lincoln at the window is a fine one. I remember that image perked me up after the interminable voting scene. There's another nice silhouette shot when Lincoln moves from one bright window across a dark wall to a second bright window. Is the dark division symbolic? Perhaps so. Whatever the case, these fine shots and Day-Lewis's performance certainly seem to come from a different film than the rest of this film that presents history in utilitarian History Channel style.

Sam Juliano said...

Jason, thanks for the terrific, compreensive response to me here. It's more than fair, and I do now see why you feel the way you do, and why indeed anyone may not buy into much of this. I know Hokahey too has some serious reservations. Fair enough.

Patricia Perry said...

I greatly enjoyed reading your piece, although I think I liked LINCOLN considerably more than you did. But with regard to the conclusion, I am pretty nearly in agreement. Personally I wish the film had ended with the scene where Lincoln walks down the White House corridor on his way out to the theater. We all know what happened after that, plus I could have done without the scene of his young son hearing the horrible news - that scene felt almost cruel. It was, in fact, a bit too much for one woman in our audience who sobbed loudly and uncontrollably through it and the ensuing deathbed scene.

Jason Bellamy said...

Patricia: Thanks for the comment. Yes, the shot of Lincoln walking down the hall would have been a good ender, too, although -- my memory might be fuzzy -- it seemed that everyone looked at Abe that night as if they thought it was the last time they'd see him ... which considering he was going to the theater seems, well, a little odd. But without those Big Important Looks, that's a great shot.

Your description of the woman sobbing: Indeed, a woman behind me sobbed at the end. She must have been in her early 60s, and earlier in the movie, when one of Lincoln's key votes appears to switch sides, she gasped, "Oh, no!!!" And there was so much concern in her voice that I wanted to turn around and assure her that, indeed, the Thirteen Amendment was passed, and if she's been treating black people as slaves all her life, she might want to buy a newspaper.

I clicked through your profile and found your thoughts on LINCOLN, and while you indeed found more to appreciate in the movie, I thought this was very well said on DDL:

"That Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificent in the title role is not surprising in and of itself, yet I was unprepared for just how completely he rescues Lincoln from the folksy, railsplitting plaster sainthood of American legend. His Lincoln is equal parts prairie sage and shrewd political manipulator, impressively presidential and wearily melancholy in almost the same moment, exuding both integrity and vulnerability. It's a performance that manages both to affirm the legend of the man and allow us to peek behind the legend to see his sadness, his affection for his sons and his complicated feelings towards his difficult wife (Sally Field, who's effective but a good twenty years too old for the part.) In that respect, above all others, Lincoln feels like an exceptional achievement."

Patricia Perry said...

Thanks,Jason!

Joel Bocko said...

Seems I liked the film more than you (it's kind of a relief to say that, as lately I've been discussing the film a lot with people who feel it was a virtually flawless masterpiece, whereas I felt it was a solid and well-done good movie with some flaws). But we definitely agree about the House vote; what seemed off about it to me was the seeming sentimentalization of the "yeas" when the whole point of the movie up to then (as I read it) was the moral compromises necessary to do the right thing and how for many it was cynicism, not idealism, which led them to support the amendment. Although others have contended that corruption just gave hesitant Democrats an excuse to vote their conscience which, if true, makes the film more dramatically consistent but thematically less compelling at least to me - yet another "white men wrestle with their souls to save the benighted blacks" movie (on which terms, I'd actually prefer the much-maligned Amistad, as it actually gives black characters a voice and presence). Taken more as an exploration of political gamesmanship and shrewd pragmatic leadership I think it's on more solid ground.

Where we're diametrically opposed is your reading of Jones and his character, who to me were the most compelling elements of the movie. Especially that reveal at the conclusion which you found corny; I think it was a bit risky but the shock value worked because in the context the film had set up to this point, it WAS shocking to see a white man in bed with a black woman, and it really underlined the human stakes of what till that point had been an abstract argument in the movie. And I thought Jones was wonderful; the character is certainly colorful and not exactly subtle, but Jones knows how to use his own stoicism and subtlety to offset potential stereotyping. His eyes speak volumes, and his vocal delivery is practically perfect (and working at cross-purposes, the one underlining his sensitive soulfulness, the other his crackerjack no-nonsense manner of thinking and acting.)

And I'm puzzled by your characterization of Steven and the radicals as simplistically sympathetic - if anything, Spielberg could be accused of playing the equivalency game since he paints both sides as extremes, however righteous one's cause vs. the others: obviously Jones' big character moment in the movie is his determination not to step into ideological overkill and destroy the success of the vote in an effort to "speak truth to power." This aspect of the movie reminded me greatly of the 2006 almost identically plotted film "Amazing Grace" (about the British drive to end slave-trading), which was mostly panned I think - a bit surprising because, other than Day-Lewis' performances and a more tightly-wound screenplay many of the same qualities are present in both.

Interesting that both you and Hokahey are not keen on this movie, as I recall you saying you guys are major Lincoln fanatics (way early in my blogging career you dropped by my review of Griffith's take on this subject and expressed your excitement about the upcoming Spielberg biopic which at that time was supposed to star Liam Neeson - incredible it's been in the works that long...)

Jason Bellamy said...

Joel: Thanks for weighing in! (You know, I emailed myself a link to your review a while back, but I don't think I ever went back to it. I don't have time to do that and give it focus tonight, but this week, for sure. Looking forward to it.)

A few responses ...

* On Jones' performance itself, I think that's just one of those subjective things. All I can say is I never felt an actual character there. Just Tommy Lee Jones playing a part. Also, I suppose some of my problems with the performance and character had nothing to do with him but with the screenplay: that whole "Coff-drop," "Coff-snot" thing seemed, again, not in character ... just a lame attempt at humor.

As for the big reveal: There's a thematic element I don't like about it that kinda-sorta mirrors what you were saying about how the House debate turns into a matter of white heroism: To put it crudely, if Jones' character is sticking up for blacks because he's boning one, well, that doesn't make his position wrong, and it doesn't make it dishonest (the boning could be the result of his principles). But it kind of cheapens the idea that his arguments are based on principle, because in retrospect it looks like he was sticking up for his girl. Likewise, his hesitance to compromise wasn't just based on moral conviction but also, one must assume, not getting yelled at when he came home. Again, I can argue the other side of it as well: his relationship proves he believes what he says. And yet it feels like a cop out at the same time.

[Aside: Imagine a movie about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," where some gay soldier's case is under scrutiny, and then the crusty old general weighs in and supports the soldier, and then later that night the crusty old general goes home to a big kiss from his male partner. Sounds kind of corny, right? Well, not the same scenario exactly. But you get the point.]

But my bigger problem, yes, is the reveal itself: First, there was the awkwardness of the set-up to it: the way we could instantly feel that something was being left out of the picture. Then there was the reveal, which felt like a sitcom gag reveal to me, which in turn made it seem like we were supposed to hoot at the fact that this white man was with a black woman, which, again, even the context of the times, made me feel uncomfortable ("Look: he lets a black woman in his bed!"). And then there was Jones's big goofy grin to close out the scene, which if you enjoyed his performance you might have liked, but I didn't, so ...

Simply put, the whole thing seemed beneath Spielberg and a film of this kind of (sometimes) serious tone, which is a problem I had throughout. Indeed, I wanted more SCHINDLER'S LIST or MUNICH (can't imagine that reveal in those films, can you?) than RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. And if that's on me, then it is.

As for the other topic I was going to reply to ...

* "I'm puzzled by your characterization of Steven and the radicals as simplistically sympathetic..."

Alas, I'm a bit puzzled by what you're puzzled by. Sorry. So hit me back on that one, if you can so I can respond. I think I'm grasping your general comments, but I'm not quite sure the point we're debating.

Joel Bocko said...

Well, don't forget that Munich had the "wargasm" scene! In general, I think Spielberg, even in his serious films, skates along the edge of ridiculousness (Schindler also had the weeping/apology conclusion, which troubled a lot of critics). This sequence was no different and indeed many of the thoughts you mentioned flashed through my head as doubts as it was occuring, and yet the scene "worked" for me. Ultimately it may just be one of those gestures which could teeter either way and depends on the individual viewer for its sucess; as you know from previous conversations I'm not so keen on subjective standards but there are definitely situations where it applies.

I'm less certain about that with Jones, although I appreciate the screenplay concession - I think as written (which one can either accept or reject) the character was well-serviced by Jones' performance.

"Alas, I'm a bit puzzled by what you're puzzled by."

What I'm saying is that I don't think the radicals were presented very sympathetically. Stevens is seen as a bracing and refreshingly plain-spoken politician, but one too principled for his - and his cause's - own good, something he needs to unlearn in order to succeed. And the other radicals are just seen as wrongheaded ideologues willing to sacrifice the cause's success to their own stubborn sense of political purity. I think they are pretty clearly set up as yet another group - along with the Republican conservatives and the Democratic die-hards - that Lincoln needs to overcome. In this the film is similar to Amistad (where the abolitionists say they are willing to lose a few slaves for the greater purpose of ending slavery - ironically, not far from the means-justifying-the-ends approach of Lincoln here, yet opposed in that movie) and Amazing Grace - where Wilberforce is painted as a passionate but still reasonable liberal as against the Jacobin extremism of some of his cohorts.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hmm. Yeah. The wargasm. I guess that just has a different tone for me. It might produce laughter, but that's obviously not what Spielberg is going for. Anyway, yeah, I don't disagree that in the end it comes down to whether the scene worked.

As for the "radicals." I completely agree that Spielberg sets them up to be another Lincoln obstacle. But let's step back: why is that obstacle there? Because of the size and spirit of the villainy on the other side. In other words, it's only because the South is so evil and backward that the North should need to compromise at all. So it's an obstacle, sure. But it makes the North noble at the same time.

Stevens is obviously the most reckless of the "good guys," but there's no doubt he's one of the good guys. Spielberg never casts him in a light that suggests we should be anything other than proud of his ethics. So that's what I was getting at.

One scene that's interesting in this discussion is the one I mentioned in my review, in which the whole House erupts over the idea of women getting the vote. It's captured in a wide shot, and from above, as I recall. And you could argue that by shooting it this way Spielberg is clearly showing that EVERYONE back then was guilty in their own way. Then again, imagine how much more damning it would have been to the folks in the North if Spielberg had cut to close-ups of the same guys arguing for the end of slavery throwing up their arms in disgust over the idea of a woman voting? THAT would have had some serious bite, right?

Again, I think there's validity in the way Spielberg did it. But for a guy who is more than happy to go to close-up reaction shots for the North in triumph, he dodges a bullet in that previous scene.

Joel Bocko said...

In a film which stresses that tactics are just as important as principles, the radicals are held up for ridicule; even Jones, the most dignified among them, must endure Mary Todd's tongue-lashing and be 'taught a lesson' by Lincoln. Only by finally compromising on the very quality that has defined him as radical throughout can he be redeemed. These are not minor points, incidental to an overall glowing portrait of admirable, if a tad-excessive do-good era. They are definitional, and go a long way toward painting these characters as primarily oppositional, another force Lincoln must overcome with a mixture of forcefulness and cajoling - with Jones the wild card who must see things the president's way to succeed.

As for your other point, no Spielberg doesn't go out of his way to pull the rug out from under the abolitionist cause by showing how they are conservative in other ways, but I'm not rally sure how that's relevant. I don't think ambiguity about slavery and its die-hard supporters/opponents would have really played in the movie; it's more about the ambiguity of the in-betweeners and what must be done to sway them.

Joel Bocko said...

*should read "do-gooders" not "do-good era". Blame my iPhone's autocorrect for the other typos too. I suppose I could figure out how to shut it off, but Im still getting used to typing with my thumbs so it probably does more good than harm...

Jason Bellamy said...

Joel: I don't really disagree with your most recent comment (er, comments). In and of themselves, I think you're right. But if we trace it back to my review, my point was that the deck always feels stacked in Lincoln's favor, despite the narrative constantly telling us otherwise. I mean, maybe here's where my knowledge of history is the problem (I know it's going to pass), but I never ever felt like Stevens was actually a threat to Lincoln. He's ornery and needs to be handled. But he's also so determined that he can easily be turned into a corner stone for Lincoln's movement -- which is exactly what happens.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, I guess the question at that point is how does one create tension with a foregone conclusion (something all historically-based films, and even a lot of formula-based genre fiction, have to grapple with). Obviously there are ways of doing so - or the question of tension can be skirted to a certain extent, with the focus laid elsewhere. Actually I felt the latter was true to a strong degree: often it seemed less like Spielberg & Kushner were attempting to create a 'what's-gonna-happen?' thriller than a 'how did it happen?' Investigation: in that sense the movie played more like a piece of scholarly but reader-friendly nonfiction than your usual historical drama. To a degree of course - this is still Spielberg and he's always gonna have that Hitchcockian audience sense to a certain degree. To the extent he failed with that, do you have any specific ideas on what might have been done better, to involve the audience despite the inevitable outcome? You mentioned more complex characters, but that seemed more about the dramatic aspect than the suspenseful one, unless I'm misreading you.

Jason Bellamy said...

Joel: That's a great question. Indeed, when this movie didn't wrap me up in its suspense, it's easy to say it's because I knew what was going to happen. But, gosh, so many other "based on a true story" pictures, or "original" movies that follow formula, or movies we've seen however many times, still manage to thrill. So, I don't think that excuses LINCOLN. In fact, per the comparison to Hitchcock, where the bomb you're aware of is much more suspenseful than the one you don't know is there, Spielberg and Kushner might have been able to use our knowledge to their advantage somehow. I don't know.

Anyway ... What might it have done better ...

I think I'll answer it this way: The movie has been complimented up and down for being a movie about process. Some of that praise, I must admit, feels to me like fans of Spielberg's normal physical action trying to convince themselves that they found this non-physical action equally thrilling.

Still, the background maneuvering is interesting, no doubt about it, and I wonder if Spielberg's second biggest error (after the tonal inconsistency I cited in my review) is decision to treat the House vote like the final game in HOOSIERS or the court room scene in A FEW GOOD MEN, and so on.

Maybe the truly bold thing, and the most effective approach, would have been to mimic ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, so that the vote itself isn't depicted (just like Nixon's undoing isn't depicted) because the actual victory comes not in the public arena but in the private moment when Lincoln sways his last needed convert and discovers he has the votes he needs to win. That would have been in character with so much of the film.

Instead, the staging of House vote is overblown from the start, including those way too obvious caption: "THE HOUSE DEBATE BEGINS," or whatever it was. If that scene wasn't depicted, LINCOLN would have avoided some cringe-worthy moments (I'm looking at you, George Yeaman) and actually followed through with the idea that this was a battle fought and won behind closed doors. Of course, Spielberg has always liked satisfying audiences, the House vote sequence is totally of that ilk, so I'm not surprised that he went there, and expecting Spielberg not to go there is like expecting Terrence Malick to remain indoors. It's just not who he is.

In the end, I think I'm mostly disappointed with how close LINCOLN is to a comedy. Oh, I've heard the movie called a scathing commentary on our current political deadlock, etc, etc, etc. But for such a serious subject matter, there are an awful lot of scenes designed to get a laugh. LINCOLN didn't need to be humorless to be "serious." But I felt as if it frequently fell off that tightrope it tried to walk.

To be clear, I have no doubt that everyone who says that they loved this movie is being perfectly honest. (Or at least 99.9% of them.) But I'd be surprised if this is a movie that calls people back to it year after year. But I might be wrong.

Adam Zanzie said...

Jason, due to extensive work on film sets in November and lack of Internet service in December, I couldn't leave a comment on this review immediately, but here we go...

Lincoln forgoes the bloody battles of the Civil War to focus instead on a political fight: the president's attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to permanently abolish slavery, so that the previously issued Emancipation Proclamation couldn't be revoked as a war measure once the union was restored.

Were you expecting a battle epic? I think the reason Spielberg avoided making the film such is because that’s the sort of thing that often compromises good biopics: action sequences that are obviously put in for entertainment purposes when the filmmaker has nothing more interesting to show. For Spielberg to make a Lincoln film focused entirely on the man (and the discussions sparked by him) is a testament to the fact that Spielberg already had interesting material *right there*, in Washington D.C.

I will say that I appreciated how Spielberg *opens* the film with a battle sequence because, as an attention-getting opening grab, it does its job. That image of the soldier’s face getting drowned in the mud hangs over the rest of the film, and from then on, there isn’t another battle sequence because we don’t need one anymore. Tony Kushner’s prose does all the rest. Even the assassination is not shown because it’s been done so many damned times, from D.W. Griffith (in not one, but *two* films) to Robert Redford. Spielberg knew he could come up with something new and still end the film effectively. Hence, Tad’s reaction while attending another theatre performance that same night.

Spielberg didn’t need to take us way out into the battlefields to make this an exciting movie, which is one of the things that I suspect he struggled enormously with in the closing scenes of Amistad (a film that, granted, I like very much) because he didn’t know how to end Cinque’s story (“The slaves are free – what do we do now? I dunno… cut to a Civil War battle!”). With this film, Spielberg was wiser. He stuck to the words, and there is no doubt in my mind that he knew the words would be a very powerful dramatic weapon in themselves when placed in the hands of a literary titan like Kushner.

(continued...)

Adam Zanzie said...

But Kushner and Spielberg approach this material with only selective seriousness, and they never convincingly cast Lincoln as the underdog, no matter how many times his cabinet explains how difficult it will be to get the necessary votes.

I’ve read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on which the film is based, and yet watching Lincoln I *still* cringed at moments when it felt like there was no hope left for the amendment. What about when Holbrook’s Blair brother (supposedly a presidential ally) tries to shut down the vote after the Democrats cry foul? And when James Spader runs all the way out from that crowded Congress to an almost barren White House to get the President’s affirmation of ignorance about the confederate peace… it felt like the longest run ever to me, sitting in the audience the first time I saw the film. I felt myself getting worried that Spader would not get there in time.

We should also take into account that the film shows Lincoln as even *more* of an underdog in his own family. I would not want to be in his place, dealing with a grown son like Robert begging to go off to war and a wife like Mary demanding that he keep him at home. Lincoln is damned if he do, damned if he don’t in this situation. When he screams at Mary that he should have put her in a madhouse after Willie’s death, it’s an even more painful line if you know that that in real life, after Lincoln’s assassination, Robert was the one who finally did put Mary in a madhouse—and she never forgave him for it.

The film is about a great president and has a lot of respect for that president, but the last thing in the world I felt like doing after seeing this film was running for president. It left the impression that it is the hardest job in the world, that there is a lot of disapproval from both rivals and friends when you take such a job and that you always have to go home after a hard day’s work to deal with difficult personal problems as well.

Lincoln is very clearly an underdog in this movie. Even as I was rooting for him, I felt so bad for him. He achieved some of the most difficult work for humanity and perjured himself plenty of times in order to get it done, and as thanks, he got a bullet to the head.

Adam Zanzie said...

But by reducing Lincoln's opposition to cartoon characters, Spielberg undercuts the significance of the entire episode. In one instance of pure slapstick, a lobbyist played by James Spader kicks dirt on the man who just tried to shoot him, before scrambling to safety as the gunman laboriously reloads his weapon. In another, the entire House of Representatives erupts in outrage when someone suggests that giving freedom to blacks is a gateway to giving them voting rights, and thus a gateway to giving women the right to vote.

I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the opposition in this film as “cartoons”. The two most villainous characters are the Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie characters (the two guys leading the Democrats), and while they are not portrayed in a sympathetic light, they are still about as realistically-portrayed as they can be in a film that is supposed to be about Lincoln and the Republicans. They are shown to be what they are: politicians. Meanwhile, Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens are tones shown to be both politicians and, what’s more, liars. They are liars because that’s the kind of shit you have to deal with (and commit) if you want to go into the world of politics. But the film still manages to humanize some of the Democrats; for example, the character played by David Warshofsky (the guy who played Plainview’s oil tycoon rival in There Will Be Blood) even admits to Lincoln that he is “a prejudiced man” because of his brother’s death in battle.

Also, the man who tries to shoot Spader’s character… well, Spader’s character *is* a lobbyist, so it’s no wonder he almost gets shot in that scene. Lobbyists by their very nature are annoying pests. True, the guy who tries to shoot Spader is obviously a pro-slavery Democrat, but back then I doubt it was uncommon to threaten people who tried to bribe you for a vote. I’m reminded of that one analogy Eliot Ness comes up with in De Palma’s The Untouchables when he informs Capone’s messenger that in Roman times, people who attempted to bribe officials had their noses cut off and were stuffed into bags with wild animals and then thrown into a river to drown. In the 1800’s, it was only slightly less-barbaric.

Finally, when you refer to the “someone” who outrages the House by complaining about the liberal things that will possibly come out of the slaves’ freedom—I assume you’re referring to Michael Stuhlbarg’s character? Because he later winds up voting “AYE!!!!” on the bill… so if *that* doesn’t redeem him in your eyes, what would have?

(continued...)

Adam Zanzie said...

It doesn't move particularly well either. At 149 minutes, it's a plodding picture — rarely outright boring but only fleetingly gripping.

Since it's a matter of taste, I obviously can’t respond to this with much substance, except to say that I thought the whole thing was enormously entertaining. And, apparently, so do tens of millions of other Americans; the film has ranked $153,000,000 in this country alone so far, and counting. It is still in the top 10 films at the U.S. box office right now. Audiences love it, and you know me: I think audiences have been underestimating Spielberg for decades.

…the result is like something out of a Ron Howard movie, with lots of reaction shots and a helpful running tally from Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) in the gallery (because every competition needs a scoreboard).

Ron Howard!!??? Why is the film similar to something by Ron Howard because of its reaction shots and tally mark shots? Raging Bull, Network, The Verdict, Twelve Angry Men (a lot of Sidney Lumet films), To Kill A Mockingbird (better yet, let’s face it—*most* courtroom dramas), Breaking Away, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington… these are all great movies IMO, and they all were all doing reaction shots and/or tally mark shots long before Ron Howard.

I don’t dislike the guy as a filmmaker, but Howard also would never have had access to a cinematographer like Kaminski, let alone an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis who generally only chooses exceptional work (excluding Nine, which I heard was awful). In fact, Day-Lewis first turned down the project because he thought Spielberg was reaching too high by wanting to do a biopic of Lincoln’s entire life, and only agreed to do the role after Kushner compressed it. I don’t think Howard would be been willing to devote over 10 years to this project the way that Spielberg did.

Adam Zanzie said...

This error of excess is nearly redeemed by the ensuing scene, in which Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski find Lincoln in his office, silhouetted behind the curtains as he looks through his window at an America born anew. But Spielberg has never been one for understated conclusions, so Lincoln rolls on, with the surrender of the South, with an obligatory chronicling of the president's death, with a flashback to his second inaugural address and with a completely corny bedroom celebration scene for the triumphant Stevens, until the intimacy of Day-Lewis's portrayal is almost lost, as Lincoln's vices overwhelm its virtues.

You think the film would have been more satisfying if it had ended with Lincoln looking out the window? I’m confused; you’ve complained about the film showing too little by focusing more on words and dialogue than on action and battle sequences, and now you’re saying it shows too much? To end the film with Lincoln beaming in the light of the sun’s rays… now, *there’s* your Ron Howard movie. It’s the Frost/Nixon ending all over again, with Nixon on the cliff looking out into the sunset. Sure, it’s an understatement, but being an understatement alone does not make a great ending.

What did you find corny about Stevens’ bed scene with his wife? As a matter of fact, I thought it was pretty ballsy (yeah, yeah; insert “that’s what she said” joke here) of Kushner to write in that scene because Stevens, as a character, does not appear very much in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, so I didn’t know before the film that Stevens’ partner in life was his black maid. The scene definitely has the touch of the writer of Angels in America, with his uncommon feel for the taboos of real-life race and sexuality issues. If you’re looking for understated, *this* was understated, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful scenes in the film.

I would say as much for the chronicling of Lincoln’s death as well. No appearance of John Wiles Booth whatsoever, no mention of the specifics of the assassination. Just his friends and family gathering around him one last time, marking his time of death, and Bruce McGill as Stanton delivering the line which the real Stanton delivered in real life: “He now belongs to the ages.” What could be better than that?

Now—this is where you’ll be surprised—on my first viewing of the film, I *did* think that Spielberg and Michael Kahn ended the film rather awkwardly in the middle of that flashback to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. It didn’t strike me as being as poetic of an ending as the finale of War Horse, with Joey looking up against the red sky. But taking into account that I was one of the few souls who adored War Horse last year, and that Lincoln is getting far more acclaim this year, I’ve tried to remind myself that this is a film more about words than it is a film about surreal visual images, so, the second time I saw it, I listened more to what Lincoln was actually *saying* in the flashback, and the ending suddenly worked better for me.

Unfortunately, I have forgotten exactly what it is Lincoln says in the ending scene, which means—to my utter delight—that I will have to go out and see this masterpiece again.

Jason Bellamy said...

Adam: Just a quick note that I haven't actually read your comments yet. But I will very soon, and respond then. Thanks for weighing in!

Jason Bellamy said...

OK, Adam, here goes. I'm going to try to match each of your comments with a comment, in the hopes that makes it easier to track. Starting here ...

Were you expecting a battle epic?

No, not at all. This one is easy to respond to: you've quoted a passage in which I simply say what the movie does. If you assumed there's a criticism tied to it, you assumed falsely. I'm just describing the movie.

Jason Bellamy said...

We should also take into account that the film shows Lincoln as even *more* of an underdog in his own family.

Whether or not we feel Lincoln seems like an underdog in his political efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment is ultimately subjective. But I must say that I agree with you that the movie does a marvelous job of portraying Lincoln as kind of an "underdog" in his own house. That's true. Well, maybe "underdog" isn't exactly the right word, but in spirit it's true enough.

But the movie (smartly) never implies that Lincoln's ability to make his wife and son happy will have an effect on his political battle. And so being an underdog in one area doesn't necessarily translate to the other.

You felt Lincoln seemed like the underdog politically. OK. That's fine. I didn't. I saw the smartest, most determined guy in the room who simply needed to twist the arm of a few yokels to get what he wanted. Lincoln's stiffest competition, ultimately, is Stevens, who of course is also his biggest ally, which kind of illustrates what I'm trying to say here.

I could ramble some more, but it would come across like I was trying to talk you out of your response. I didn't think that the movie made a convincing case that Lincoln had a worthy rival. They SPEAK of challenges, but they don't convincingly portray them. (And, yeah, being president could be a lousy job; but that doesn't make you an underdog.)

Jason Bellamy said...

Let's work backward up on this next one ...

Finally, when you refer to the “someone” who outrages the House by complaining about the liberal things that will possibly come out of the slaves’ freedom—I assume you’re referring to Michael Stuhlbarg’s character? Because he later winds up voting “AYE!!!!” on the bill… so if *that* doesn’t redeem him in your eyes, what would have?

You're confusing matters here. It's incidental who voices that women might be given the right to vote. What matters is the explosive reaction of Congress in response. As I say in the next sentence, the scene suggests, "Oh, what silly, backward times these were." It's a laugh line. One of many moments designed with comedy in mind. (Even Spader's sprint to the White House is designed with comedy in mind.)

Speaking of Spader's character: I didn't object to him being shot at. I objected to the way he's shot at, then runs up to the guy while he takes forever and a day to reload, and kicks dirt on him, and then goes scurrying away. Again, it's a scene designed for comedy that giggles at this olden times.

Now, you don't have to be bothered by the abundance of humor in the movie. The "Coffdrop" and "Coffsnot" stuff, for example, or so many other lines from Stevens. My complaint is that it's tonally opposed to the solemnity that Spielberg tries to capture in other scenes. I'm not against humor in "serious" movies. Even Schindler's List has humor. But this doesn't strike the right balance for me.

As for the opposition as "cartoons," I refer back to what I said in a previous response paired with your own observation, plus one more: With whom does Lincoln have his most regular, challenging battles? In order, probably Mrs. Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, William Seward (who is quite the doubter) and Preston Blair. Now, which of them is opposed to the Thirteenth Amendment? Answer, of course: none. Thus the only worthy rivals to the amendment are, as you correctly point out, the Pace and McRobbie characters. And what happens to them? Stevens repeatedly humiliates them on the floor of the House; in fact, Stevens is only in jeopardy of defeating himself. So, truly, can we say that this film establishes convincing, respectable opposition to Lincoln's amendment efforts? In my opinion, we can't.

Jason Bellamy said...

And, apparently, so do tens of millions of other Americans; the film has ranked $153,000,000 in this country alone so far, and counting. It is still in the top 10 films at the U.S. box office right now. Audiences love it, and you know me: I think audiences have been underestimating Spielberg for decades.

Indeed, the pacing is subjective. But, at the risk of sounding like a prick, you're better than the above argument. First off, ticket prices contribute to the box office BEFORE someone knows whether they like the movie or not. Thus, what box office success measures is a movie's marketability and marketing campaign. And combining the most celebrated president of all time with one of the most celebrated directors of all time with one of the most celebrated actors of all time, well, that's a pretty safe recipe for success. And it doesn't hurt that it's family friendly. (It's worth noting that DJANGO UNCHAINED, which no one seems to think is Tarantino's best picture, is well on its way to being his biggest box office success.) Bottom line, the movie costs $12 whether you love it or are bored out of your mind.

Ron Howard!!??? Why is the film similar to something by Ron Howard because of its reaction shots and tally mark shots?

I didn't quote the rest, but let's keep it specific: the movie is like a Ron Howard movie in its extreme use of reaction shots and in its very deliberate score-keeping. You expanded to point out ways that this isn't akin to a Ron Howard movie, which is fine, because this is the only part I'm comparing. And, indeed, I think it's comparable. Now, I could also say that LINCOLN has reaction shots like at the end of ARGO, and if you take that to be less of an insult, that's fine, but the Ron Howard comparison is no less relevant, and that includes a comparison to APOLLO 13, which I like quite a bit better than most Spielberg movies. Point being: I compared that to a Ron Howard overtness, because I think it's comparable. I think Spielberg is too capable a filmmaker to need not only multiple vote tallies going on at once, but to show poor Mrs. Lincoln tallying the vote, then repeatedly writing down how many votes to go, and then still getting to the end and needing to count them up to see what happens.

Reaction shots can be fine. Nothing inherently wrong with them. But they can be cheap and pedestrian, too, and that's what I saw in LINCOLN. If only Spielberg would have had the courage to end it with the president in the silence of his office!

Jason Bellamy said...

A few things in this last one ...

You think the film would have been more satisfying if it had ended with Lincoln looking out the window? I’m confused; you’ve complained about the film showing too little by focusing more on words and dialogue than on action and battle sequences, and now you’re saying it shows too much?

Nope, I never complained about the movie showing too little by focusing on words. This brings us back to the first comment. I simply described what the movie does. I have no problem with movies that are all words. None whatsoever. And I'd like to point out that I open my review by praising a silent exit by the president as one of my favorite shots of the year. Don't lose track of that.

What did you find corny about Stevens’ bed scene with his wife? As a matter of fact, I thought it was pretty ballsy. ... The scene definitely has the touch of the writer of Angels in America, with his uncommon feel for the taboos of real-life race and sexuality issues. If you’re looking for understated, *this* was understated, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful scenes in the film.

Oh, it's anything but understated. It's a dramatic reveal. And, sadly, it plays like comedy: "Oh, look, he's with a black woman! What a sneaky guy!"

I realize you see it as deeper and more emotional than that. And I get it. I don't deny that Spielberg was going for that, too. But that part didn't connect with me. So, just for the fun of it, two other reasons why I don't like this scene:

* To some degree it actually undercuts Stevens' mission, because now he isn't a man bound by principle but a man bound by a loving relationship with a black woman. Indeed, the counter argument is that he has enough principle to fall in love with her in the first place. I give you that. But it's no wonder that Stevens couldn't settle for anything less than victory, because he had a personal stake in the matter.

* More significant though: Isn't there something a bit, well, icky, about the fact that he has HER read the amendment to him, rather than the other way around? It's HER life. It's HER freedom. Seriously, go with me on this one: Imagine Stevens coming home, getting into bed with his black partner and reading the amendment to her. THAT would have been some moving shit. Oh, well.

I would say as much for the chronicling of Lincoln’s death as well. No appearance of John Wiles Booth whatsoever, no mention of the specifics of the assassination. Just his friends and family gathering around him one last time, marking his time of death, and Bruce McGill as Stanton delivering the line which the real Stanton delivered in real life: “He now belongs to the ages.” What could be better than that?

Well, since you asked: What might have been better would have been not covering the assassination at all. It's incidental. Although I think it had a better ending earlier, at the window, I'm not overly bothered by the way the movie rushes through to the finish after that, crossing off all the obligatory historic checkpoints. But I'll end here by quoting something I think I read on Twitter, and I'm sorry I can't remember who wrote it, but it went like this: "I wish LINCOLN had been the kind of movie where when he leaves for the theater, no one looks at him like they know what's going to happen." Sadly, it's not that kind of movie.

Jason Bellamy said...

OK. I think I covered it all, Adam. We disagree, obviously, but I love the passion you bring for Spielberg.

I'll say this without hesitation: it's better than WAR HORSE. :)

Adam Zanzie said...

You've quoted a passage in which I simply say what the movie does. If you assumed there's a criticism tied to it, you assumed falsely. I'm just describing the movie.

Okay, I’m glad you cleared that up. The reason I read it as a criticism is because you used it as a follow-up to your claim that the film lacked “subtlety and magic”; in particular, the use of “magic” led me to speculate that—whenever Day-Lewis is off-screen—you were longing for something more Hollywood-ish to occupy the film’s running time, such an extra battle sequence or two. So we’re on the same page now.

You felt Lincoln seemed like the underdog politically. OK. That's fine. I didn't. I saw the smartest, most determined guy in the room who simply needed to twist the arm of a few yokels to get what he wanted. Lincoln's stiffest competition, ultimately, is Stevens, who of course is also his biggest ally, which kind of illustrates what I'm trying to say here.

What about Seward, making Lincoln ashamed for not informing him about the confederate peace? Stanton, bullying Lincoln for being too much of a storyteller and not enough of a commander-in-chief? Alexander Stephens, reminding Lincoln that hundreds of thousands of men have died under his administration?

Yes, Lincoln twisted arms to get what he wanted. So has every single president in U.S. history. It’s one of the perks of the job. What makes Lincoln an underdog in this film is not that he lacked the power to get what he wanted, but that he lacked the approval of his peers—think Will Kane in High Noon, with everyone turning their backs on him. That’s Lincoln’s whole administration in a nutshell. There’s a great line in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book in which Lincoln mutters to his cabinet, “You are all against me.” Even though that line isn’t in the movie, you can feel its presence in the scene where Lincoln is going on his “Now! Now! Now!” tirade. Because he has a reason to be yelling. They’re all against him.

Point being, I never once got the impression from this film that Lincoln could just get things accomplished at the drop of a hat. If he could do that, he would’ve gotten the Thirteenth Amendment passed without having to lie about its intentions. It could have been passed on the basis that all men were created equal. But no. That’s something which he *couldn’t* just twist an arm to achieve, because the opposition was just too strong.

Adam Zanzie said...

It's incidental who voices that women might be given the right to vote. What matters is the explosive reaction of Congress in response. As I say in the next sentence, the scene suggests, "Oh, what silly, backward times these were." It's a laugh line.

I think you’re neglecting *why* that line is so funny. It’s funny because it’s true. The movie is certainly not suggesting that Congress was only like this back then. Congress is *still* like that. Remember John Boehner roaring, “HELL NO, YOU CAN’T!” after Obama’s health care bill got passed? A whole bunch of his peers responded with an explosive reaction when that happened.

Speaking of Spader's character: I didn't object to him being shot at. I objected to the way he's shot at, then runs up to the guy while he takes forever and a day to reload, and kicks dirt on him, and then goes scurrying away. Again, it's a scene designed for comedy that giggles at this olden times.

But again: I see this as another comedic instance in the film of Spielberg reminding us that people back then are just like us today. To run up to a guy and stall him before firing a second shot from a gun… this, well, isn’t exclusively an 1800’s thing.

My complaint is that it's tonally opposed to the solemnity that Spielberg tries to capture in other scenes. I'm not against humor in "serious" movies. Even Schindler's List has humor. But this doesn't strike the right balance for me.

Tonally-opposed, how? Lincoln himself was a very funny man with a biting sense of humor, which is made evident in the film. You are correct that Schindler’s List had humorous scenes of its own, but I don’t understand why you think that that film found the right balance for humor and that this one didn’t. Schindler’s List needed comedic scenes so that the audience could be have an occasional moment to breathe. I would argue that Lincoln needs its humorous scenes even more because, like I said, it’s true to how the man himself really was. I dread the dour, cheerless period piece Spielberg and Kushner might’ve made if they hadn’t done their research.

Adam Zanzie said...

As for the opposition as "cartoons," I refer back to what I said in a previous response paired with your own observation, plus one more: With whom does Lincoln have his most regular, challenging battles? In order, probably Mrs. Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, William Seward (who is quite the doubter) and Preston Blair. Now, which of them is opposed to the Thirteenth Amendment? Answer, of course: none. Thus the only worthy rivals to the amendment are, as you correctly point out, the Pace and McRobbie characters. And what happens to them? Stevens repeatedly humiliates them on the floor of the House; in fact, Stevens is only in jeopardy of defeating himself. So, truly, can we say that this film establishes convincing, respectable opposition to Lincoln's amendment efforts? In my opinion, we can't.

You lost me here. First of all, the Pace and McRobbie characters have some scenes in the film where they’re shown to be doing some hand-twisting of their own, such as when they convince the Walton Gobbins character to recant his support of the amendment.Yes, Stevens later humiliates them on the floor. I don’t see how this lessens them as a force of opposition, though. They’re still giving menacing their fellow voters in the scenes that follow.

I think you're forgetting that this whole film is about how Lincoln literally has to go to some last-minute desperate measures just to acquire the necessary votes for the amendment. The amendment barely even got passed. On both sides, lobbyists were threatening the people who were still undecided on the bill. Both Stevens (on the Republican side) and the Pace character (on the Democrats side) have individual scenes where they make threats behind closed doors. The Walton Gobbins character is in danger of being assassinated if he votes yes on the amendment. This is not a “cartoonish” way of portraying opposition; it’s just a reflection of certain political realities. When the amendment finally gets passed at the end of the film, it’s by a *very* thin margin. I see that alone as good evidence to conclude that Lincoln’s opposition was incredibly strong.

Adam Zanzie said...

Ticket prices contribute to the box office BEFORE someone knows whether they like the movie or not.

Okay, I realize that there can never be an official way to determine what makes a box-office hit. It’s just that Spielberg hasn’t had this much approval from both critics and the public since the 1990’s, and Daniel Day-Lewis, despite being a great actor, has never been thought of as a box office draw, so I hope you understand why I can’t come to the easy conclusion that this film is making so much money just because of interest in the cast/crew/subject matter. Word-of-mouth is also helping it a lot, which is the sort of thing you can expect from a film that is getting shown in both commercial theaters and Landmark theaters.

The reason I bring up this film’s domestic box office grosses is because I want to encourage you to think outside the box a little; it’s something we all have to do as critics every once in awhile, particularly audiences seem to enjoy certain movies more than we do. For instance: When Roger Ebert panned Clockwork Orange in ’71, one of his many criticisms was that he thought the film was “just plain talky and boring.” Ebert is entitled to his opinions like the rest of us, but I think history has shown that he was flat-out wrong; whatever Clockwork Orange’s faults, “boring” it ain’t. And while there are obviously better ways to defend the film from the charge of “boring” than merely sticking up for what it grosses, I can’t deny that one of my first gut instincts (in the case of Clockwork Orange) would probably be to remind Ebert that the film *did* become an overwhelming hit with the public, as well as a cult phenomenon. Again: by itself, this is a lousy way to defend a movie, but it’s also a good way to encourage deeper meditation on why certain films are hits.

To use another example: I personally thought Inception was a tedious film when I saw it in 2010. I haven’t seen it since, but talking to its many fans since then (even some who were at Sundance), I’ve realized that it was *not* a popular movie simply because it starred DiCaprio and was directed by the guy who did The Dark Knight. The fans of that movie whom I’ve talked to, well… they all truly, honestly thought they saw a profound movie that encouraged them to think—and, what’s more, was well-paced for their tastes. I disagreed at the time, but I’ve talked to enough fans of that movie that I fully intend to go back and see if it entertains me more on a second viewing. It could be that the first time I saw it, I was bored by Nolan’s perceptions of dreamscapes and, from then on, the film lost me while it had the rest of my audience spellbound.

Let me stress: I am *NOT* saying you’re an evil person for thinking Lincoln is not a well-paced film. It is perfectly healthy to encounter disagreement over these sorts of things; I’m just trying to figure out why the film’s pacing didn’t work for you. I thought that for 2 ½ hours, it felt like 90 minutes, and that as a cinematic experience, it made history and politics fun—moreso than any other movie I can think of. To that I would add that I believe the film was well-paced because Lincoln himself emerged so vividly in the film as a human being, family man and charismatic storyteller. I also believe that the comedic scenes (which you criticized) helped keep the film entertaining whenever Lincoln was off-screen.

So, I have to ask: What, in your mind, would’ve improved the pacing? Hell, J. Hoberman has been Spielberg’s harshest critic for an eternity, and even he writes: “Despite a two-hours-and-twenty-minute running time, the movie scarcely suffers from the inflation of previous Spielberg movies.”

Adam Zanzie said...

I think Spielberg is too capable a filmmaker to need not only multiple vote tallies going on at once, but to show poor Mrs. Lincoln tallying the vote, then repeatedly writing down how many votes to go, and then still getting to the end and needing to count them up to see what happens.

Again… I’m confused as to what is so wrong about tally-vote sequences in movies. I hate to bring up another real-life analogy, but: Bush vs. Gore, anyone? Yet another instance where every vote counted and all eyes were on the final decision. Spielberg is “too capable” to do a multiple tally-vote montage? How exactly should he have done it differently?

If only Spielberg would have had the courage to end it with the president in the silence of his office!

Except I keep getting the impression that you weren’t very impressed with the film even before this shot. Would cutting out Lincoln’s demise have made the film good, in your eyes? Or just less mediocre?

Adam Zanzie said...

Oh, it's anything but understated. It's a dramatic reveal. And, sadly, it plays like comedy: "Oh, look, he's with a black woman! What a sneaky guy!"

Jason, even though it’s getting redundant of me to be using the phrase “I don’t understand” so many times in this response, I sincerely can *not* understand how you’d take away from this scene the impression that it played like comedy. There wasn’t anything funny about that scene. It didn’t get a laugh in the theater either of the times I saw the film—did it get a laugh in yours?

Okay, so yes: it’s a dramatic reveal. What I meant by “understated” is that this is a scene in the film which pushes the rest of the movie aside and becomes only about itself. It is a movie within a movie: Stevens’ private life, which he can’t make known to the public because of the taboos of the times. And if we remember that the Michael Stuhlbarg character dreads the day when interracial marriages are made legal, it is even a sad scene in many ways because it leaves us with the understanding that Stevens and this woman will never be officially married. They are partners in life, and they cannot even make it known.

To some degree it actually undercuts Stevens' mission, because now he isn't a man bound by principle but a man bound by a loving relationship with a black woman. Indeed, the counter argument is that he has enough principle to fall in love with her in the first place. I give you that. But it's no wonder that Stevens couldn't settle for anything less than victory, because he had a personal stake in the matter.

I agree with pretty much all of the above, except I’m confused why you’re using this as evidence for why you *don’t* like this particular scene. So what if Stevens had a personal stake in the matter? Would you rather Spielberg and Kushner had cut this out of the film and, therefore, denied audiences a chance at getting a clearer understanding of what drove this man to his goals? Wouldn’t that be depriving the film of its depth, not to mention its authenticity?

More significant though: Isn't there something a bit, well, icky, about the fact that he has HER read the amendment to him, rather than the other way around? It's HER life. It's HER freedom. Seriously, go with me on this one: Imagine Stevens coming home, getting into bed with his black partner and reading the amendment to her. THAT would have been some moving shit. Oh, well.

Again: it’s understated. Maybe she’s one of the few literate African Americans of her day, and he wants to make sure she’s doing well on her reading. Maybe she likes reading to him. Who knows? I believe it’s moving either way.

Adam Zanzie said...

Finally...

"I wish LINCOLN had been the kind of movie where when he leaves for the theater, no one looks at him like they know what's going to happen." Sadly, it's not that kind of movie.

That sounds like a documentary, not a movie. Movies are supposed to be visceral. More to the point: I disagree that when they watch him walking out that door, that they “know what’s going to happen”. I think they’re looking at him that way because he’s Abraham Lincoln, and because he’s done amazing things for them, and because they’re proud to have him as their president.

Jason Bellamy said...

Adam: Nice replies. In my responses here I'm going to ignore places where we've cleared things up.

Point being, I never once got the impression from this film that Lincoln could just get things accomplished at the drop of a hat. If he could do that, he would’ve gotten the Thirteenth Amendment passed without having to lie about its intentions.

Ah, OK! Well, yes, here we actually have some agreement. As I said in a previous comment, Lincoln's stiffest opposition comes in the form of people who don't really oppose the Thirteenth Amendment. Now, as you point out, they don't all fall in line and play nice and pull in the same direction, which is a challenge worth noting, I agree. So, yes, the movie shows the general difficulty that Lincoln has in getting the amendment passed.

What I was trying to get at in my review is something else: the movie repeatedly mentions how difficult it will be to get the necessary votes, but I don't think it visually establishes this difficulty. In other words, Seward being a pain in the ass to deal with but ultimately backing Lincoln doesn't make him a compelling dramatic obstacle that must be overcome.

Just to underline this: the movie constantly TELLS us that it will be almost impossible to get these votes, but I don't think it convincingly PORTRAYS that. And part of the reason, to tie into a different conversation, is that so many of the efforts made to turn opinion toward the vote are treated as comedy.

So: "You are all against me!" That kind of PERSONAL frustration and opposition the film does a good job of evoking. You're right. But that's related but not the same as what I'm talking about.

Jason Bellamy said...

The movie is certainly not suggesting that Congress was only like this back then. Congress is *still* like that.

I disagree. I think that line specifically is very much about laughing that at one point in our history men found the idea of women getting the vote so unreasonable.

To run up to a guy and stall him before firing a second shot from a gun… this, well, isn’t exclusively an 1800’s thing.

Um, you're going to need to provide an example here, because I think this is very much a pre-magazine kind of thing. The joke is in how long it takes the guy to reload.

Tonally-opposed, how? Lincoln himself was a very funny man with a biting sense of humor, which is made evident in the film.

In the end this becomes a matter of personal taste, so I won't ramble much here. I will note that I didn't have a problem with Lincoln's humor -- that's character examination, and it shows how his spirit endures despite his constant frustrations, etc. But ignore Lincoln for a moment. Truly, next time you watch the movie, check off the number of scenes that have a laugh line in them and the number that don't. I think you'll be surprised at how much comedy is in this movie. For me, the movie attempted to take adopt a very solemn tone in moments, but because of the propensity of comedy elsewhere, it was difficult to take that solemnity very seriously, except when DDL -- by the gift of his awesome power -- essentially just musters it all by himself.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yes, Stevens later humiliates them on the floor. I don’t see how this lessens them as a force of opposition, though.

Here's how: If you have all the smartest guys on the room on one side of the table and all the mouth-breathers on the other side who keep walking into their own traps, who is going to win a battle of cleverness and tactics?

When the amendment finally gets passed at the end of the film, it’s by a *very* thin margin. I see that alone as good evidence to conclude that Lincoln’s opposition was incredibly strong.

Right, but this is retrospective. Again, this links up with previous comments: I'm talking about how the movie SAYS that it's going to be almost impossible to win the vote but rarely PORTRAYS that in way that's deeply felt, OTHER than simply repeating how close the vote is. That's score-keeping. The stats are important, but they aren't dramatically compelling.

Just to use a totally different example to try to illustrate what I mean, let's briefly think about two other movies, JAWS and STAR WARS.

In JAWS, we've got humans against an animal. Should be an easy match for the humans, right? I mean, all they need to do to avoid being attacked is to stay out of the water. But in that film Spielberg visually creates a sense that this shark is an unstoppable force. We don't feel that just because we hear people died. We SEE it. We SEE evidence of its might. We don't SEE the evidence of the might of Lincoln's opposition to the Thirteenth Amendment.

To take this further, STAR WARS: Think of the little rebel ship trying to flee from the Empire's much bigger ship. Think of skinny and shaggy Luke standing against imposing, menacing Darth Vader. And so on. Again, these are visual representations that establish one side as an underdog and the other side as, if not the favorite, at least a serious threat. Lincoln doesn't do that. It has all the smart guys on one side of the room, and all the mouth-breathers on the other who snarl a lot but never actually gain the upper hand for more than 5 seconds.

So THIS is what I'm talking about when I suggest that Lincoln never feels like an underdog. He has no remotely worthy rival.

Jason Bellamy said...

I want to encourage you to think outside the box a little.

Well, I did see the movie twice, and I feel I approached with with an open mind both times.

As for the box office, again: McDonald's has served billions. That tells us something about the food, but not everything.

What, in your mind, would’ve improved the pacing?

I'd have to think about this one more. I suspect the answer is tied more to my other replies. In other words, if I felt more genuine dramatic conflict, I'd probably have found the pacing fine.

Jason Bellamy said...

Spielberg is “too capable” to do a multiple tally-vote montage? How exactly should he have done it differently?

I kind of alluded to that. Most simply: not make Mrs. Lincoln look like a moron making tally marks AND handwriting in "X votes needed" and then still needing to add up the math in the end.

Would cutting out Lincoln’s demise have made the film good, in your eyes? Or just less mediocre?

I hope this doesn't sound like a dodge, but I truly don't see it that way. I don't see it as, "If he would have ended it here, THEN it was good, but instead it was bad." More like, it would have been a better ending, period.

Jason Bellamy said...

It didn’t get a laugh in the theater either of the times I saw the film—did it get a laugh in yours?

Yes. I'm not saying that proves I'm right. But you asked the question, and the answer is, yes, people laughed.

They are partners in life, and they cannot even make it known.

I grant you that this element of the relationship established over the course of that shot and the one before it, when he comes home, does shine through.

So what if Stevens had a personal stake in the matter? Would you rather Spielberg and Kushner had cut this out of the film and, therefore, denied audiences a chance at getting a clearer understanding of what drove this man to his goals? Wouldn’t that be depriving the film of its depth, not to mention its authenticity?

I'm fine with it being in the film. But it's interesting to ask this question: if Stevens' relationship was established at the beginning of the film, wouldn't that alter your impression of what he's fighting for -- a personal relationship vs purely and simply What Is Right?

I think they’re looking at him that way because he’s Abraham Lincoln, and because he’s done amazing things for them, and because they’re proud to have him as their president.

Well, they're sure looking at him pretty adoringly for a random night at the office when he's off to head to the theater.

Adam Zanzie said...

Sorry it’s taken me a week to reply; classes started up and I never had a second to step away and devote time for some further comments. I’m sensing that we’re not going to reach an overall agreement on this film, but I wanted to contribute some final thoughts.

What I was trying to get at in my review is something else: the movie repeatedly mentions how difficult it will be to get the necessary votes, but I don't think it visually establishes this difficulty.

I can think of several examples:

a) Whenever the Walton Gobbins character meets in private with James Spader, it’s always beside the rainy shores of a vast river. One could argue that the enormousness of the river sort of shows how complicated the Gobbins character’s situation really is. He’s running the risk of being assassinated if he votes a certain way; meanwhile, there’s that river in the background, making things seem even scarier. Spader can’t catch up with him the second time he meets him by the river—hence his cry of, “Oh, crap!” when Gobbins gets away.

b) Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook’s character) silently motioning to the conservative Republicans in the chambers down below that the vote on the amendment be cancelled.

c) Spader almost getting shot by the congressman who won’t budge.

d) Spader running desperately to the White House to get the President to lie about the amendment’s intentions. Notice how Kaminski shoots this sequence in wide angles to indicate that Spader’s got a hell of a long way to run.

e) A photo of a whipped slave that young Tad Lincoln becomes fascinated with. It represents the very sort of evil that this amendment seeks to conquer and which somebody as young as Tad doesn’t fully comprehend.

f) Those piles of amputated legs dumped into a hole in Robert’s presence. One of many horrendous prices being paid in order to get this amendment passed.

Adam Zanzie said...

I disagree. I think that line specifically is very much about laughing that at one point in our history men found the idea of women getting the vote so unreasonable.

Well, yeah. And to which I added in my last response that we are still seeing these kinds of ridiculous opinions espoused in American politics to this day. Rand Paul arguing that the Voting Act of 1965 shouldn’t have been passed; Sarah Palin suggesting the GOP should remain the party of “hell, no!”; Blagoyavich insisting he did nothing wrong when he tried to sell his seat. Future generations will scoff at the fact that our current political system tolerated such things.

The reason why the comedy in this film works so well is because it’s universal. Extremism in politics will never die—nor, unfortunately, will it ever likely stop being a powerful majority.

Um, you're going to need to provide an example here, because I think this is very much a pre-magazine kind of thing. The joke is in how long it takes the guy to reload.

No. The joke is in Spader running up to the guy and throwing stuff at him to keep him from firing again.

Truly, next time you watch the movie, check off the number of scenes that have a laugh line in them and the number that don't. I think you'll be surprised at how much comedy is in this movie. For me, the movie attempted to take adopt a very solemn tone in moments, but because of the propensity of comedy elsewhere, it was difficult to take that solemnity very seriously, except when DDL -- by the gift of his awesome power -- essentially just musters it all by himself.

I was fully aware of the film’s comedy both times I saw the film. Like I said in my last response: the comedy keeps the film entertaining whenever Lincoln is off-screen. This is why those who accuse Lincoln of being little more than “Spielberg’s history lesson” are getting the movie so wrong. Are history lessons ever this lively?

And why is the solemnity of the film difficult to take seriously just because of the comedy? That’s like saying the massacres of Schindler’s List can’t be taken seriously because we also see Schindler goofing off with his female typists and bickering over stock value with potential investors. Or when “Mr. Jareth” forfeits his gold tooth to be melted into a ring for Schindler at the end.

Likewise, I think that the handling of the comedy in Lincoln is excellent. I smiled and laughed often, and appreciated the movie for it. Then I stopped smiling and laughing during the scene where Lincoln and Mary shout at each other over Willie’s death, during Lincoln’s fight with Robert, during Lincoln’s quarrels with his cabinet and many other instances; Kushner’s dialogue and Kaminski’s harsher lighting in those scenes sufficed in settling me down. The economy of drama and comedy in this film is superb—clearly the work of the director who made The Sugarland Express.

Adam Zanzie said...

Here's how: If you have all the smartest guys on the room on one side of the table and all the mouth-breathers on the other side who keep walking into their own traps, who is going to win a battle of cleverness and tactics?

Those “smartest guys in the room” walk into a trap themselves when Stevens is forced to lie about the amendment to get it passed. Notice how Mary is pleased by Stevens’ compromise while her maid, Elizabeth, slinks away in sadness. On that particular day, it is not a victory for her people.

I kind of alluded to that. Most simply: not make Mrs. Lincoln look like a moron making tally marks AND handwriting in "X votes needed" and then still needing to add up the math in the end.

I don’t see how any of this makes her look like a “moron”.

Yes. I'm not saying that proves I'm right. But you asked the question, and the answer is, yes, people laughed.

Well, that’s just weird, then, and not at all the filmmakers’ problem. If audience members were laughing at the scene because of what you suggested—the idea that it’s funny because Stevens goes home to a black woman—then that sounds like little more than laughter provoked by discomfort with the situation. It is not a funny scene.

I'm fine with it being in the film. But it's interesting to ask this question: if Stevens' relationship was established at the beginning of the film, wouldn't that alter your impression of what he's fighting for -- a personal relationship vs purely and simply What Is Right?

Actually, it deepened my appreciation of Stevens’ situation the second time I saw the film. Because on the second viewing, I had knowledge I didn’t have the first time. That’s what great movies do. They get better with repeated viewings the more you discover.

Adam Zanzie said...

Well, they're sure looking at him pretty adoringly for a random night at the office when he's off to head to the theater.

Why is it so wrong if they’re looking at him that way? He has worked hard for over 4 years to get this amendment passed and to reunite his country. He deserves a relaxing night at the theatre after all he’s accomplished, and for all we know, the servants are looking at him admiringly when he leaves on that final day because they *agree* that he deserves it. Remember what he tells Mary in the carriage: "We must try to be happier. We must. We've been miserable for so long."

I could come up with a whole bunch of reasons to justify why the servants are looking at Lincoln that way at the end of the film, but it would be pointless. If I wanted to see political employees regarding a political figure the way they would every single day, I’d watch Pennebaker’s The War Room. This is not a documentary—it’s a dramatic movie, designed for our emotions.

Craig said...

Great discussion. I finally saw LINCOLN, and much to my surprise, I'm with Adam on this one. One thing where I'm sort of with Jason is the Thaddeus Stevens scene, not that it's ha-ha funny, but because it kind of suffers from sitcom staging, complete with big "reveal." The actual content of the scene itself I found moving. I found the deliberate humor of the movie itself to be refreshing, and kept the film from becoming the type of starchy biopic I'd feared. Spielberg and Kushner early on establish Lincoln as a character with both gravitas and wit, and both qualities emanate in perfect harmony out of the character and into the rest of the story.

I also thought the filmmakers did an effective job wringing suspense out of what is, historically, a foregone conclusion. The tension derives from the situation itself; the movie doesn't need any colorful "heavies" to manufacture conflict. More importantly, I think Spielberg and Kushner achieved something even trickier in depicting internal conflict in so many characters, not just the principals but the bit players, like the Representative (or Senator, I forget which) with the dead son (brother?), who ultimately votes no, then holds his head in anguish.

Mark and Lindsay said...

With two years of comments here, this site has an amazing collection of insights on film. I want to comment, but with a unique bias, because I was in two scenes - one with a significant role.
When it was shot in Richmond, several of us musicians were cast for the opera scene as well as Tadd Lincoln's theatre scene. But my experience was unique, because Tony Kushner asked me to use his father's antique baton, and to conduct the opera while Lincoln and wife argue in the foreground. Tony handed it to me in the lobby of the theater the morning we shot the scene from Faust (which featured a Met Opera cast singing the "Love Duet"-irony?). That piece of 19th century reality motivated me to read "Team of Rivals", and that book is the best way to approach the movie.

I realize this discussion is about the movie making, but as a view into true history (as opposed to the government-funded text books) it's the combination of print and movie media that makes this a profound experience. Read the book and see if you don't feel the same sense of loss that those who used to hate him feel, when the president dies. There's also the horrific night of attacks and blood that happened when the conspirators tried to kill all the leaders. Then watch the film and realize the just outside the frame, the world is crashing in on this small group of people, and the world as they know it will disappear in a matter of weeks.
So that unique perspective of the book, the day of shooting, then the movie itself has shown me how closely our modern lives are connected to the war and Lincoln's leadership. Maybe the film doesn't stand against some of the greats of the industry, but it's a key link to understanding the American character, flawed and brilliant as it can be.

Mark and Lindsay said...

Read the book "Team of Rivals" folks...you'll learn the contemporaries commented on how ridiculous the wig looked on the real man that TL Jones portrayed. Also, there was a furious storm brewing just outside the frame, but Kushner/Spielberg wanted to keep us inside Lincolns private world.
I was in this film, as the conductor for the Opera scene, using Kushner's own father's baton (antique ebony with silver and ivory fittings). The dedication to true details is amazing and along with the book makes for a complete picture of the interior life of the president.
Yeah, I'm biased, but there were scenes that didn't make it in, like the riot in the theater that Tadd was in, when the news reached them that the president was shot. In the shooting, the assistant director had to tell people to calm down, they were frightening the children actors...

Enjoy the book first, the watch again. Thoughts?