Friday, November 30, 2012

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Like so many modern movie titles, Lincoln is only one word, and as with so many other titles, this offers an oversimplified, even misleading idea of what the actual film contains. Though Steven Spielberg roped in perhaps the most noteworthy white elephant actor of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis, to portray the 16th president, Lincoln concerns the man only elliptically. He appears chiefly as a do-gooder who relies on Machiavellian practices, one of which is the use of others to do his dirty work. And though the film concentrates on the passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln’s most celebrated achievement and undoubtedly an act of great good, Lincoln reveals that the path to that moment was rough and dirty, indeed.

That filth can be seen in the film’s first shots, the only ones of the movie to take place on a battlefield, or at least the only one to do so during a battle rather than the still aftermath. In a few gruesomely intimate but stably mounted shots, Spielberg manages to top the false realism of Saving Private Ryan for sheer visceral repulsion. Unionists and Rebs have moved too close for musket fire, resorting to bayonet stabs, fistfights, even drowning foes in the rising rainwaters in trenches. It is brute savagery at its most chaotic and meaningless, and it hangs over the rest of the film as Lincoln alternately uses and is hindered by war developments in his quest to get slavery abolished. And as the footage is revealed to be the memories of black soldiers relating the battle to Lincoln, the pride they express in getting back at Confederates massacring all captured black soldiers hints at the tangle of racial strife that will only be compounded by the amendment, not solved by it.

That lays the foundation not for a Great Man tribute to Lincoln’s unimpeachable honesty and conviction but for the intense politicking one must employ to effect change on a federal level. If anything, the image of Honest Abe is cast asunder by Spielberg and Munich writer Tony Kushner, peeling back the noble but nevertheless Machiavellian schemes he used to get his way. Late in the film, Lincoln’s biggest misdirection and sin of omission is revealed to one of his most loyal supporters, and the man’s quivering, aghast declaration, “You lied to me,” could be the voice of all the disillusioned seeing how all-too-human the president could be. But that is one of the few times where Lincoln even comes into direct contact with his schemes; for the most part, Day-Lewis is relegated to the occasional appearance as the bulk of the movie moves with the friends in high and low places who charm members of the opposition as well as the disagreeable elements within the Republican party. Compromise, that most uncinematic of political “victories,” is the subject here, and it is valorized as much as it is called into question.

Admittedly, the moments in which the film lionizes the ends reached by such means ring the most hollow. The structuring of the final House vote on the 13th Amendment teases it as dramatic suspense, and the obvious passage is a joyous victory made more treacly by Janusz Kaminski’s trademark overlighting in a cutaway scene from the vote results to Lincoln standing by the window of the White House with his young son, Tad. Spielberg Faces abound, and Day-Lewis’ is always tilted downward, bowed by the weight of Lincoln’s responsibilities. There are also the requisite scenes of distracting comedy: James Spader’s sneaky Republican operative is shot at by a Democratic Congressman, then has time to flee, run back, and flee again before the man can reload. Likewise, ardently liberal Republican attack dog Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) gets moments to be sarcastic with the somewhat caricatured opposition, letting contemptuous syllables dart out in savage clips. These are moments that threaten to undo what the film accomplishes elsewhere, adding a doe-eyed, lightweight tone to the deflating elements.

Thankfully, Spielberg balances out most of the dubious moments with a look behind ostensible breakthroughs to reveal the inner (and outer) turmoil they create. If the film unwisely plays the vote for suspense, it successfully wrings much more believable drama out of the pressure to table, even abandon, the hope for abolition in order to bring about peace. By pursuing one goal, the Republicans must forsake another, and each issue could have chaotic historical ramifications if allowed to continue. Among the many issues Aaron Brady raises with the film in his article for Jacobin, one of the angriest concerns how Spielberg handles Stevens, whose extreme (if absolutely correct) views are cowed in a crucial moment on the House floor in order to cement moderate support. Brady calls Stevens demurral his “shining heroic moment,” and there is some discomfort to the way in which Stevens rallies and turns his instance of moral cowardice and compromise into a rousing, applause-filled rant that deflects from what principles were just sacrificed. But for a movie Brady accuses (not unfairly) of omissions, he makes one of his own by ignoring the scene that directly follows, in which Stevens sits outside the assembly hall, clearly grappling with what he just did and using a morose argument with another radical colleague to justify himself to himself as much as the other man.

And then, of course, there is Lincoln. So many movie Lincolns resemble James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a creature of unassailable innocence perhaps too good for the realm of politics but able, for however brief a time, to bring the system to his level. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln resembles more the Stewart of Anatomy of a Murder, a man who proves that someone can be streetwise even where the streets are but dirt paths. He is simultaneously disarming and infuriating, particularly when deflects mounting hostility with a disarming, folksy story that allows him to hook a crowd for a long divertissement that allows Lincoln to subsequently return to the argument from which he skillfully departed, only now he controls the angle of approach. These scenes show Lincoln at his most approachable but also his most shrewd, and one sympathizes with the mix of anxiety and anger in the voice of his secretary of war (the always great Bruce McGill) when he realizes another tale is coming and flees the room to spare himself.

If this Lincoln is inspiring, and he ultimately is, it is because this great compromiser still has just enough conviction preserved after four years of war and internal strife to risk everything for it. A reasonable alternate title for the film might have been The Last Temptation of Lincoln, wherein a return to the status quo looks painfully welcome after so much bloodshed, even if the status quo would keep millions subjugated and likely lead to another conflict down the road. An eerie dream sequence near the film’s start places Lincoln on a ship heading to unknown and foreboding territory, the voyage hopeful but terrifying in its unknowns. For Lincoln, the 13th Amendment became an endpoint only when he was shortly thereafter prevented from seeing through its consequences. Spielberg mercifully keeps the dramatic irony of that subject mostly away from the film, but when Lincoln humbly admits to his servant, “I don’t know you,” his own confession of human separation from the cause he champions casts a far more troubling pall over what the future will bring than the president’s weary, relieved walk to the carriage that will take him to the Ford Theatre.

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