Monday, December 03, 2012

lincoln -- without sainthood

Pity Tony Kushner.

How does a screenwriter tell a tale of Lincoln's life while escaping the gravitational tug of hagiography?

That was Kushner's brief in writing the script for Spielberg's Lincoln.  And he succeeded.  Sorta.

The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Abraham Lincoln.  Her book focused on Lincoln's political skills with his cabinet during the four years of his presidency.

But even that palette was too broad for a film.  900 pages too much.

After a few false starts, Kushner tells us who Lincoln is through the two months the House of Representatives debated the enactment of the political cornerstone of the Lincoln administration -- the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery throughout the United States.

It turns out to be a brilliant choice.  We get to see Lincoln as a great strategist -- a man willing to compromise (and perhaps commit political bribery) for a moral end.  As a raconteur who could turn conflict into agreement with a folk story.  And yet a father and husband who cared deeply for his family.

Americans are now commemorating the 150th anniversary of its civil war.  A period of history that has been encased in national amber.  But, when it was happening, there was no guarantee how the war would win or when.

The script bravely lets Lincoln explain why the Thirteenth Amendment was necessary.  Why the Emancipation Proclamation may not have withstood legal scrutiny.

And even though Lincoln wanted to see the end of slavery, he was not above using the debate as a means to bring an early end to the Civil War (a tactic that failed) or to mislead the Democrat opponents of the amendment (with a lawyerly response concerning the prospects of peace without passing the amendment).

What the script brings us is politics in its barest forms.  Where Radical Republicans set aside their goal of full equality for legal equality.  Where conservative Republicans pass up peace possibilities to favor abolition.  Where Democrats use every tactic available to defame the president.

Even though all of that sounds anachronistic enough to be out of this morning's newspaper, it does only because the current American political gridlock is merely an echo of earlier periods of political dispute. 

The film compresses events and gives lines to characters who never spoke them.  But the film is as accurate as any of Shakespeare's historical plays.  Fiction always serves current political agendas to some degree.

The greatest kudo for the film is that it does not flinch from Lincoln's concern about whether the two races could live side by side in peace.  He had doubts.  Stemming partly from his belief that the white race was superior to the black.  But he was willing to take the risk.

After putting Lincoln into a very realistic environment, his death unravels the mood.  As he lies on his deathbed in the  Peterson House, he looks as if he has just been taken off  the cross.  Dying for our national sin of slavery.

Even with that martyr ending, the film is well worth seeing.

Perhaps seeing more than once -- with its complex storyline and beautiful cinematography.


John Calypso said...

Daniel Day Lewis - an actor's actor. Looking forward to this one.

Steve Cotton said...

He nailed the part. But, doesn't he always?

barbara eckrote said...

Well, since I don't know what hagiography means, I can't comment!
However I have heard awesome things about the movie and intend to buy it at the Tuesday Market manana.

Steve Cotton said...

You will enjoy it. Even though the movie has its flaws. But it works very well -- showing Lincoln as a masterful politician. A part of his life seldom examined. Too often we forget how unpopular he was during his presidency.

Felipe Zapata said...

Throughout history, races living side by side in peace has a pretty poor batting average.

naaland said...

In 2005, I toured the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois. One part of the museum was devoted to how Lincoln was described in local newspapers, letters he received, etc. I was struck by how mean, offensive, scurrilous many of the writings were. It was a great illustration for me that this seems to be human nature (sadly). When I compare it to today, not too different.

Andean said...

How long is the movie?

Steve Cotton said...

Lincoln's view was colored by that reality, as well.

Steve Cotton said...

The running time is a very pleasant 150 minutes.

Steve Cotton said...

American politics has been a full contact sport since the nation was founded. One of the core aspects of a democratic system is that we can think (and say) the same nasty things about our leaders as we do about our neighbors. Neither one is a very pretty picture.

christopher lord said...

I think you're being generous to the film; for me, it suffered from an overdose of earnestness. Lewis is compelling as Lincoln, but his deliberate speech pattern drags down the pace. This is a movie, ultimately, about the horse trading of politics, and it pulls few punches, allowing us to draw our own inferences about the closed door dealings of the modern era. The balance between Lincoln as man and as president was my favorite component; Sally Field, who has received mixed reviews was, in my view, deserving of the screen time she shares with Lewis; you feel that you're having an acting master class. Spielberg's movie, is of course, filled with moments only he could do (there are several "Speilberg faces"--check youtube for that one). But the movie failed to convey the sense of urgency that the impending end of the war should have. Look for the unlikely James Spader and Jackie Earle Haley in great secondary roles. And Tommy Lee Jones is at his craggy best, like a man with a rock-hewn face carrying the weight of the slave world in the carpetbags under his eyes.

Steve Cotton said...

Carpetbags under his eyes.

Quite droll description for the Radical Republican Stevens.

Shannon Casey said...

I looked it up, and I'm not sure Lincoln was actually saint-like, but I would like to see the movie.

Steve Cotton said...

You should see he. Even with its flaws, it is a great tale of a society in distress.