Friday, November 16, 2012

History as Soporific: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's new Lincoln movie isn't going to help any teachers convince their students that American history is actually exciting or interesting. In fact, the movie is so stupefyingly dull that it will remind you  if you've been unlucky enough to have lousy history teachers (I had a few good ones, fortunately, which is one reason I like history)  of those tiresome hours whiled away in the classroom just waiting for the bell to ring, and thus end your misery, while the teacher droned on. Luckily, with Lincoln, you have the option of leaving the cinema anytime you want to and without getting into trouble for vacating the premises. I suspect many audience members will feel like doing just that.

Instead of trying to capture the sprawling and tumultuous life of one of America's greatest Presidents, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, utilizing a relatively small part of Doris Kearn Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, concentrate on the last few months of Lincoln's life, in early 1865, when the just re-elected Commander-in-Chief (Daniel Day-Lewis) sets out to ensure that the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, will finally pass, a daunting task as a significant number of Democrats would have to be convinced to jump aboard the anti-slavery bandwagon. The film's focus is on his mission, as he and various minions cajole, threaten, beg and even bribe their opponents to switch sides and do what is morally right.

Granted, it can be rather difficult to capture the to and fro of political deal making, which can be dry material and make it seem interesting and compelling, though TV's The West Wing did do it on a weekly basis. And at least Lincoln isn't as tedious as Ken Loach's turgid 1995 film Land and Freedom, which was overly invested in the dull minutiae of communist political debates and wrangling. Nevertheless, Spielberg's would-be opus is still a remarkably static affair, certainly for him, and a film that, ultimately, undermines and lessens the gripping nature and lasting impact of Lincoln's stupendous feat.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln
Casting Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln should have been a slam dunk, as he has brought real life personalities in My Left Foot (1989) and In the Name of the Father (1993) to vivid, remarkable life before, but it's an oddly bloodless performance. (At least, he doesn't chew the scenery as he did in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood, 2007.) Day-Lewis's President is a diffident sort of fellow, who rarely makes eye contact with anyone but still adopts a folksy demeanour, telling mildly off-colour jokes as he tries to get in good with his political opponents or keep potentially fickle allies onside. Perhaps Lincoln was really like this but Day-Lewis's acting is overly recessive and too often blends into the background, leaving little impression at all. Even his oratory – and Lincoln is rightfully considered to be the best Presidential orator of them all – is perfunctory. Not overacting is one thing; underplaying to a fault isn't any more desirable.

It's left to the rest of the cast to compensate for those shortcomings. Sally Field, as Lincoln's tart-tongued wife Mary Todd Lincoln, has one great scene where she, delightfully, tears a strip off of her husband's opponents when they visit the White House for a function. (She somewhat overdoes another key scene where, while weeping over the tragic loss of one of their sons she assails her husband for not mourning his death properly. It's a bit too declamatory.) As Lincoln's oldest son Robert, who is vacillating about fighting in the still-raging American Civil War, mostly because his mother fears he'll die in combat, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Premium Rush) delivers a powerful performance laced with pain and anguish. And (an unrecognizable) James Spader and John Hawkes (The Sessions) provide some comic relief as a daffy duo sent out by Secretary of Sate William Seward (a fine David Strathairn) to lobby the Democrats on the slavery issue. (There's more than a whiff of Bill Clinton's amusing advisor James Carville at play here.) Tommy Lee Jones's performance as ardent Republican abolitionist leader Thaddeus Stevens, who is forced to compromise on some of his most deeply held values in order to help the Thirteenth Amendment pass, is probably not a stretch for him, but he's sure having fun delivering the vicious invective and aspersions at his weaselly Democratic rivals.

(It's illuminating to see that the current Republican/Democrat rancor has its antecedents in the past, though the 19th century insults are far more inventive and colourful. The film is also a timely reminder that once upon a time the Republicans, Lincoln's party, were on the progressive side of the ledger and the Democrats were the hidebound obstructionists. Parties change and can continue to do so.)

Other talented cast members, including Jared Harris (Mad Men) as Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who deserved much of the credit for the Union victory still to come; Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became Mary Todd's confidant and dressmaker; and Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, are wasted in tiny roles that aren't much more than cameo appearances. Often, in fact, the movie's protagonists just seem like so many decorations set against a painstakingly realistic, but still mundane, backdrop. (Janusz KamiƄski cinematography is not much to write home about, either.)

A scene from Lincoln
Much of this lackadaisical approach to such a potentially rich and highly dramatic story can be laid at Kushner's door. On the basis of his fractured screenplay for Spielberg's Munich (2005), not to mention his vapid, caricatured play Angels in America (or at least the first part that I saw), it's safe to say that Kushner is not a skilled wordsmith or dramatist. You get very little real sense of the violent passions roiling ordinary Americans during the Civil War (there's only a brief glimpse of one bloody battle), a facet of American history handled much more skillfully and entertainingly on the Showcase/BBC America series Copper, set in New York City around the same time as Lincoln. And the persistent political squabbling, with the Democrats objecting, and the Republicans countering can only take a lifeless movie rendition so far. History is a juicy, tasty thing in the right hands, as has been evident in historical movies from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) through to Edward Zwick's Civil War film Glory (1989), which movingly centred on a pioneering African American regiment fighting under a white commander. Lincoln's take on such a momentous time in the country's history doesn't begin to do justice to its subject. It's not even close. African Americans, by the way, barely appear in the film.There is one amusing scene early on, though, when a disgruntled black soldier criticizes Lincoln to his face about the discrepancies in pay his fellow black soldiers receive compared to their white counterparts. It suggests that perhaps in a century blacks will gain the right to vote. (I was relieved that no one in the movie dared broach the idea that, maybe, a black man would or could someday become president. That would have been pushing it.)

I suspect the main reason the movie is so boring is that Spielberg and Kushner are overly in awe of their subject and determined to avoid any cinematic visual excesses, preachiness or saccharine speech making, In other words they want to avoid creating another Amistad, Spielberg's overwrought and didactic 1997 film about a 1839 slave rebellion and the trial that followed. That's laudable, but did they have to substitute such an emotionally flat and listless movie instead? They likely also wanted to avoid any controversies in how they depicted this American icon; remember the fuss that ensued when psychologist C.A. Tripp suggested in a book that Honest Abe was bisexual?

Yes, the movie is always sober and thoughtful – qualities in short supply in Hollywood these days – and it deftly avoids Spielberg's occasional penchant for proffering sentimental claptrap (Always (1989), Hook (1991), Amistad), But there's virtually no trace of the visceral, tremendous directorial talent who brought us tension-filled, compelling and indelible historical films like Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Even War Horse, Spielberg's very fine 2011 film, rendered historical incidents from World War One in a unique, riveting fashion. Considering the film's pedigree, its subject matter and the man behind the camera, the fact that Lincoln is such a drab, enervated movie, and one so utterly lacking in personality, is both baffling and surprising.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses and his course, Intelligent Art and Meticulous Craft: The Social Cinema of Sydney Lumet, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (Bloor and Spadina, Toronto), began Monday October 15.

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