Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thinkin' about Lincoln

Historical genre . . . or historical "genre" . . . . where is the cultural energy these days?

I've been thinking for some time about Steven Spielberg's Lincoln - without coming to any clear conclusions regarding it.  Perhaps because there is no clear conclusion to come to regarding it.

Well, actually, there was one conclusion I came to - I wish I'd liked the movie more; for me, it amounted to a literate, but fussily damp, cinematic squib.

Without a doubt, though, it is a fine, high-minded piece of craftsmanship.  It boasts a script, by Tony Kushner, that occasionally hints at the political eloquence he's known for.  And it showcases a central performance, by Daniel Day-Lewis, that in technical terms accomplishes something uncanny: like the robot Lincoln at Disney World, it conjures a weirdly "accurate" fantasy-recollection of a man whom no one alive has ever seen or heard.  Watching Day-Lewis, the audience all but nods, "Yes - that must be what he was like."  It's an odd kind of achievement, surely - the impersonation of a collective impression rather than an actual man; and yet it works cinematically, at least on the surface.

Beneath that surface, though - ah, there's the rub; Day-Lewis remains a folksy, flinty cipher to the finish, for all his wry grinning and quotes from Shakespeare.  And to be fair - maybe the actual Abe Lincoln was a cipher, too.  But movies used to be able to tell us more than that about their mysterious heroes; T.E. Lawrence was his own kind of sphinx, for instance, but David Lean and Robert Bolt limned his charismatic essence with far more power than Spielberg and Kushner manage here.

Okay, Lawrence of Arabia is a pretty high bar - and to be fair, Spielberg and Kushner were apparently working from a celebrated text, Team of Rivals, by famous plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is nobody's idea of a literary stylist. Goodwin's writing (if it is her writing) often plods with calm authority from one cliché to the next (so unsurprisingly, she's fond of chapter titles like "The Gathering Storm," etc.).  And her ideas, at least the animating ideas of Team of Rivals, often feel like the same kind of lesson-plan boilerplate: there is an objective, with which we can all agree, and which the Great Man in question brings about through clever gamesmanship on a political chessboard that is constantly in flux.  Ta-da! That's history, folks.

An uncanny robot inhabited by the ghost of Atticus Finch.
Thank God Tony Kushner is a lot smarter than that, but throughout Lincoln Goodwin's concept drags on him like some pseudo-intellectual anchor. Kushner's at his best in pitched dialectical battles between characters (like Belize and Roy Cohn in Angels in America) whose very lives are antitheses, and who therefore operate as what Hegel might have called "history personified."  But Team of Rivals offers no such foil to Lincoln (and let's be honest, any such conceptual depth is a bit beyond both Goodwin and Spielberg) - so Kushner's hands are kept from the trusty dramatic tools which might have helped him limn his hero's strange depths (I mean even Peter O'Toole had Omar Sharif, know what I'm sayin'?).

And thus Lincoln feels weirdly flat despite its high period detail, and its lead character - well, as I watched Day-Lewis, I was reminded of Kushner's own words from Angels: we probably cannot make the crossing that Lincoln made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist.  But what a grand goal even attempting such a voyage would have been!  The trouble is that such a goal would have immensely complicated the Hollywood audience's relationship to "No. 16." In particular, it would have meant lifting the veil on his own curious (if admittedly "enlightened," and always evolving) brand of racial politics.  We would have had to ponder how someone could move from something like a separate-but-equal racial stance, and a deep reluctance to endanger the Union by declaring slaves free, to the final realization that only that very freedom could validate the sacrifices of the war, and even weld the Union together for good.

In other words, we would have had to experience a dialectic.

Maybe that's what bugs me most about Lincoln - they hired the right playwright for the job, but then wouldn't let him write his play!  At least Kushner comes through with a far more sophisticated and successful script here than he did with Munich (his last effort with Spielberg); this time there's something close to an actual rhythm to many scenes, and there's a sprinkling of genuinely funny jokes.

So Spielberg doesn't quite manage to scramble things as he has before; he just manages to prevent them from coalescing into anything really insightful or new.  Thus the surface of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance may be striking, but its mold is almost too familiar: inside the Hall of Presidents, we find Atticus Finch all over again.  And while Day-Lewis is surrounded by a gallery of fine actors, many of whom (particularly James Spader and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) hold their own against him - even in the funerary feathers of the period - they, too, are all playing familiar types.  Actually, sometimes they're just blanks, like Sally Fields' curious take on Mary Todd Lincoln; we never quite understand what she's doing in the movie, because Kushner isn't given the space to accurately chart a central moral paradox about his hero, who was willing to risk other men's lives to save the Union and free the slaves - but not his own son's.

So my attention drifted during the film's longeurs, and I found myself re-considering the paradox of Spielberg's later career, and his self-thwarted attempts to revive the mojo of such legends of popular cinema as David Lean and Stanley Kubrick.  Those auteurs were able to cross high and low with astonishing skill - while Spielberg (let's be honest) keeps flubbing it despite the best of intentions.  He seems to understand "high," but it's just not in his bones; he's basically low, through and through.  He's more at home in pure genre (science fiction in particular) than he is in what used to be called "the historical genre."

Of course to be fair to Spielberg, "low" keeps getting lower and lower.  Indeed, we've already seen Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (poster at top), which posited the sixteenth president as a hatchet-wielding slayer of blood-suckers; and Quentin Tarantino, who concocted a Jewish revenge fantasy out of World War II (in Inglorious Basterds), is about to turn the same trick with a cinematic money shot for African-Americans in Django Unchained.  Yes, pop has once more found the Civil War, and the results are almost as dismaying as Gone with the Wind; left to its own devices, "genre" will only distort the conflict's meaning and twist it to predictable uses (generally, adolescent revenge).  Lincoln stands as a kind of valiant attempt at a riposte to all that - it's the sort of movie we know we all need, a movie that might tempt the culture back from the millennial cliff.

And we'd get that kind of movie, too, if David Lean were still around.

Only he's not.

Lincoln leaves Lincoln a cipher to the finish.

No comments:

Post a Comment