See it. Don’t miss. It’s riveting, suspenseful (we get to watch an election vote-by-vote — without computer, without Fox News — what more American?), gritty. People every once in a while insult one another gleefully. Says Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens to a racist conservative democrat I don’t believe in equality because I know you, you idiot, bigot, loud-mouthed animal are not my equal; I just want everyone to be equal before the law, even you. Of course there’s a myth wrapped up in that as there are many in the film you have to think about later, such as the idea that real liberty for black people was won with the 13th amendment. The film has the usual flaws of such films (e.g.,like Amazing Grace; “history as progress narrative“). Still it has much to deliver. If you don’t want to bother read on, that’s what I have to say tonight. The rest is why and how the film is good and where are some flaws.
I can’t know what you’ve read about Spielberg’s Lincoln (Anthony Lane’s “House Divided“?), screenplay Tony Kushner, focusing on Lincoln’s determined effort to have his Congress pass the 13th amendment to the US constitution, outlawing chattel slavery. I’m writing about the film because I was very moved by it — along with (it seemed to me) most people in a heavily crowded mixed-race auditorium at my local semi-art cinema in Northern Virginia. I might have said “despite its iconic material” but know it’s because of the iconic nature of its material that in this year 2012 this story, these characters are quickened with wrought up life. What US child has not been exposed to scenes of civil war carnage, the millions dead, the bloody bloody battles, the archetypal figures of Lee all formal frozen elegance and Grant taking off his hat at Appomattox. Lincoln? You cannot do such scenes ironically or as comedy. Are we still not fighting the civil war in our other present damaging wars? This is a movie about us today, about racism, about whether you believe in equality of all (whites against whites too); its issues have not yet been resolved it seems. When near the close Jackie Earle Dailey as a weasel-like Alexander Stevens, negotiating for the confederacy will not concede that it’s not a question of two countries at war but one in dire conflict, nor that anyone has the right to free “the property” of the confederate wealth, we are hearing a variant of this year’s unspoken elite-control versus egalitarian-liberty, Romney/Ryan-versus-Obama/Clinton clashes.
Historical films worth seeing are about today in disguise and present their issues ambivalently. I thought this would be like in type to two season’s ago The King’s Speech, a mini-series inside 2 and 1/2 hours, film adaptation (of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) with Lewis taking the Colin Firth eloquent hero role. It’s not. After all these mini-series are a British form. This is not an intellectual’s film — though it helps if you know your American history, the more about this period of the civil war, these individuals the better: such as Stevens was beaten viciously so that he was nearly crippled, had a black mistress-housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton smith [played by S. Epatha Merkerson) he loved dearly. It’s like wholesome American TV: Ken Burns stuff.
Also it helps to know your cinema. Film-makers like to quote. This one quotes The Talk of the Town (1942). At the close of the forever unforgettable TOTN after Ronald Colman’s risks his career appointment as a justice to the supreme court, and gets the position, we see him walk away from home (from the back) from the POV of his endlessly loving, smiling older independent minded male black valet who has just made sure Colman is wearing the right jacket, so at the close of Lincoln, we watch Lewis walk away from home on the fatal night of his assassination (yes Spielberg neglects no buttons) from the POV of William Slade as his endlessly loving, smiling older male black valet who was never a slave and has just tried to make sure Mr Lincoln wears his gloves. This kind of worshipfulness of the great (white noble) man by the superior (black intelligent) “everyman” is still with us. We also have an obligatory scene between Lincoln as great (white) man taught by an ordinary (black) person, this time a woman, Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s “colored” maid: Mrs Keckley encourages Mr Lincoln to go on with his determination to pass the 13th amendment after his wife has such raged against his refusal to try to make peace above all and at any price because now their son has enlisted.
There are still far too few black people in the film. It’s too much a small group of white men saving the world (something one finds in many a commercial historical film). Lincoln opens on Lincoln talking to two black men, one of whom I recognized as the powerful black male lead of Small Island, David Oyelowo. He did not appear again after the initial scene, opening scene where Lewis was Lincoln as Henry V listening to the men who fight:
Izzy told me biopics often begin with the death of the central figure. One of the mistakes of this film was to fast forward at its close to Lincoln’s death so we could then have a retrospective drenched in nostalgia and loss where we see and hear at long last one of Lincoln’s many stump speeches delivered to a huge crowd. I’ve read these. They have much Biblical language, but are simple direct passionate denunciations of slavery, eloquent defenses of equality (in the mode of Burns’s “a man’s a man for aye that”). I’d hoped we’d have more of them and earlier. The choice was rather to show us Lincoln at home (undoing Mary’s corset, arguing fiercely with her over their son, reminiscing and looking forward to the traveling future they would not have), Lincoln with his cabinet, with his son, with his hired band of half-drunk bribers, one-on-one with this or that person. Or alone, at a distance, privately ruminating. He is all height, a concave shadow, who walks awkwardly as if he doesn’t want to take up the space his body needs, his hands oddly strength-less.
No one can say that Lewis’s performance is one of impersonation as we have no tapes of Lincoln, only the words of his speeches, what he and others wrote down about him in life, his writing to be read — these Lewis delivers with an understated held-back, soft, low startlingly (if you remember his usual cut-glass accent in Room with a View, his cockney in My Beautiful Laundrette) western American set of vowels circa 1860; his whole posture is of laid back, withdrawn power brought forth fully when periodically force is called for. It does work because none of the speeches are wooden lines of narrative or ideas fed the audience in the way of BBC/PBS style mini-series costume-historical film drama. The character talks naturally. He can pronounce, but he is also witty (“joyful to be comprehended” he mutters at one point to James Spader as Bilbo who anachronistically greets Lincoln with “I’ll be fucked” what are you doing here?),
He is conflicted, deep in thought, worried, austere and icy too. at moments I wondered if Lewis had Obama in mind.
It may be taken as a rebuff to Obama since central to what happens is how Lincoln will not give in. He will pass the 13th amendment before ending the war lest the peace legalities find his Emancipation Proclamation does not apply post-war situation. He fights and fights hard, using all weapons, from a crew of coarse bribing networker-enforcers who bully, pressure, manipulate to get the necessary votes. When Lincoln is needed in the last days, he’s there in the thick of it, finding out individuals and persuading them. As Obama often has failed to and so given up what he should not have or not gotten what he should.
Too much radiance, too much plaintive music. Far too little sense of history as a group of forces. Ang Lee’s Ride to the Devil did that (also civil war), and somehow Lee managed to avoid cliched scenes (he’s not American himself), but Ang Lee’s film was trashed by the studios (they did not advertise it) and it flopped. Sally Field as Mary Lincoln made too dense or again too seething. But it has to have the rhetoric debates, the scenes of corpses, the songs, the lines of men in blue or grey.
I’ve an idea Spielberg made the film because the matter is iconic.
But there are also some funny moments, and wry jokes here and there (Kushner wrote it): Lane caught Mary Lincoln’s just think “four more years in this terrible house”. I loved Lincoln’s fondly told long-drawn out gentle joke-y tales, with their indirect relevance. When Lincoln moves into gnomic poetry mode, and David Stratairn as Steward beyond patience, exasperated into complaint, cries aloud “I have no idea what you are talking about,” I laughed aloud. I laughed aloud several times in the movie when no one near me did.
So go and you too can get to appreciate the jokes no one sitting near you does.