Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Movies I'm Watching: Lincoln (December 18, 2012)
The period is nicely re-created. The props and costumes seem carefully researched and accurate. The use of a muted color palette--colors that look slightly faded--is an anachronism, but it works, somehow making it easier to believe that we are back in 1865. Although it's nonsensical to think color would have been any less vibrant then than it is now, the subdued tones somehow make it easier to suspend disbelief, despite the logical contradiction involved. It is the one anachronism in the film that seems worth the sacrifice of truth. The device is used particularly in some of the outdoor scenes.
For the most part, the cast seemed of the period. The rather colorful goings-on in the House of Representatives and the flamboyant language used seems consistent with the history I know (imagine how much better C-Span ratings would be if our representatives spoke with the same forthrightness, animation, and verbal invention today). Daniel Day-Lewis is entirely believable as Lincoln, and the long shots of him, in particular, beautifully capture the tall, lanky form we associate with our 16th president. As usual, Day-Lewis delivers what seems a pitch-perfect performance. David Straithairn (as Seward) and Hal Holbrook (as Blair), are stand-outs among the supporting cast. Sally Field gives a fine performance, but her face is so strongly associated in my mind with her early TV role as "The Flying Nun" that I'm afraid I found it hard to completely accept her as Mrs. Lincoln--a curse of my generation. No fault of Ms. Field's, of course. The boy playing Tad (Gulliver McGrath) seemed right as well. It would take a second viewing to connect all the names of the various other actors with the many well-played smaller roles. The end credits rolled by much too quickly.
Above I've listed some of what seemed right about Lincoln. A few scenes seemed out of kilter with the rest of the movie, however. The bloody opening scene, in particular, seemed entirely unnecessary--a gratuitous reminder that the Civil War involved a great deal of bloody hand-to-hand conflict with comparatively primitive weapons, a point that no longer needs to be made. This seemed an overdramatization. Spielberg never seems willing to give his audience credit for any intelligence, but perhaps this particular choice was more the fault of the script than the director. The early scenes seem to be designed also to make the point that former slaves and freedmen were fighting as soldiers for the Union, a point that could have been more subtly made.
I found it hard to accept another early scene that had Lincoln talking to soldiers, both black and white, that recite by heart his Gettysburg Address--a piece of writing that is rightly revered, but a speech I doubt was accorded then (scarcely a year after it was uttered) the same almost worshipful appreciation it enjoys today. It was admired among the president's political supporters (although ridiculed by newspapers unsympathetic to the president) and it was widely printed and disseminated, yet it seems unlikely that so many soldiers would have known the lines by heart that a randomly chosen handful would be made up entirely of men that had mostly committed Lincoln's now-famous words to memory. Perhaps I'm wrong about this. I don't know.
A later scene involves the president arguing with his oldest son, Robert, who wants to enlist and fight (President Lincoln and his wife, still grieving from the loss of another son, have done all they can to keep Robert out of the army). Robert feels his non-participation is an affront to his manhood. He is finally prompted to defy his father by the sight outside a military hospital of two men pushing a wheelbarrow dripping blood. Robert follows the men to the back of the building where they dump a pile of amputated limbs into a pit already partly filled with arms and legs. What seems wrong about the scene (if it was necessary at all) is that a blanket or some such large piece of cloth is thrown over the wheelbarrow, hiding the limbs. After four years of bloody war and in an age when people were far less squeamish than we are, it is likely that no one would have bothered, and it takes little imagination as a viewer to guess what the men are transporting. Why be coy? This seems another example of overdramatization and lack of respect for the moviegoer's intelligence. Are we supposed to be surprised when the cloth is drawn away and the limbs tumble into the pit when it has been obvious from the outset?
Among the biggest failings, in my view, is the handling of the climactic scene--the roll call vote on the 13th Amendment to the constitution that abolished slavery. It's drawn out needlessly here. It's very simply preposterous to think that there would have been any kind of cliffhanger moment--that no one would have known the outcome until it was formerly announced to the speaker of the house. As the count came in, those present would surely have been keeping tally themselves. It would have been apparent that the amendment had passed as soon as the required number of votes came in—before the entire roll had been called. Another example of force-fed drama where a quieter, more subtle approach would have been sufficient—and ultimately more powerful. Repeatedly in this film we see Spielberg as magician reaching into his hat to pull out a rabbit, the magician seemingly oblivious to the fact that he's chosen a top hat made of glass: We can see the rabbit before the trick is done.
The end of the film, too, seems poorly conceived. The scene between Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and his quadroon housekeeper in bed, for example, was somewhat baffling, as it comes out of the blue (unless you already know the history). Their relationship was a real one. The housekeeper was Lydia Hamilton Smith and apparently she and Stevens were lovers, but the relationship could have been more subtly suggested if there were no time to develop it as part of the story. Instead of trying to surprise us with this sudden revelation (another rabbit), why not explain what their relationship actually was? Throughout Lincoln there is an overt, well-intentioned surface effort to be respectful of the African Americans portrayed without any attempt to clarify exactly what these people were doing at the time, which, apparently, was far more than the film suggests. Spielberg's treatment gives the impression that free blacks in Washington and elsewhere were patiently waiting around for white men to hand them freedom--which is not entirely true.
Likewise, I fail to understand the point of the late clip of Lincoln delivering part of his Second Inaugural Address, which comes after we are shown Lincoln dead. The way it's presented, it has the feel of an outtake pinned to the film's backside just because someone thought it would be a shame to waste it. The assassination itself could have been left out, too, for that matter. We know that part of the story. The film would have been far more effective if it had concentrated on the drama chosen for its focus--the politics--letting that drama speak for itself.
Not a bad film. As I say, it's sufficiently interesting that it doesn't seem overly long, despite its two-and-a-half hour running time, but it suffers from perhaps the most common flaw of much Hollywood filmmaking: It is heavy-handed where it doesn't need to be. It assumes that its audience lacks intelligence and is incapable of enjoying anything but the crudest forms of entertainment.