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.