Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"I Saw 'Lincoln'"

“Lincoln” offers unusual pleasures not everyone is going to appreciate.  

Let this present commentary record that any film that takes the time to fully and precisely explain, in legalistic clarity, why “The Emancipation Proclamation” freeing the slaves is not ultimately sufficient, and why, therefore, a Constitutional Thirteenth Amendment freeing the slaves is additionally required, and further, why said amendment must be passed before the Civil War is over is a film this moviegoer will long cherish and remember. 

With these self-same facts, however, can another “Lincoln” moviegoer respond with equal sincerity, “It’s so boring!”

I like a movie that treats me like a grownup.  And I am thrilled to wrestle through all the tangled talky-talk, and when it’s done be able to proudly state, “I stayed with it, and I got it!” 

Yes, I had to pay the price, fretting uncomfortably through a mercifully compact opening battle scene, where director Steven Spielberg got to play with his techno-toys to produce memorable moments of mutilation and carnage, the only one I recall, since I spent the bulk of the time staring down at the floor in front of me, being a soldier stepping on an opposing soldier lying on the ground, boot in his face, pressing his head under a mud puddle, so he’ll drown. 

I don’t know.   I already knew the Civil War was terrible.  I did not need a boot- drowning to remind me.

It’s fine.  As I would gladly pay the price of my discomfort for the wonderfulness yet to come.   The mandatory slaughter scene gratefully behind us, “Lincoln” settles into a meticulous chronicling of what is basically a partisan legislative wrangle, like if a more current movie were made about the “Affordable Health Care Act”, or a vote raising the debt ceiling.   

And, of course, History assuring us that we have a Thirteenth Amendment, the resolution of this dispute is seriously spoilered, the only other explanation being that that, like elevators and office buildings, in deference to superstition, the Amendment number “Thirteen” was cautiously skipped over.

In backwards order, building as usual to the most salient observation, here are the reasons “Lincoln” so satisfyingly struck my fancy, and will be a movie, if not in its entirety, extended swaths of which, I would happily to see again.

Third in importance – the production design and lighting, all indoor spaces made to appear to be illuminated exclusively by hearth-fire light, candlelight or oil lamps.  It looked like indoors, 1865.  Not that I was actually present at the time, but it is no great stretch to imagine an inhabitant of that era, momentarily reprieved from “dead”, invited to come forward and pass judgment on “verisimilitude”, scanning the astonishing replification, and going, “Yep.  That were it, all right.” 

They spend a few bucks hewing assiduously to detail, and I am carried magically back in time.

The second impressive element is the script by Tony Kushner, most famous for Angels In America.  Like Spielberg, Kushner has applied research and discipline to the task, complementing the tempered direction with credible dialogue fitting time and moment, free of inappropriate flourishes and retrospective psychologizing.

And then, there was Lincoln.  I would say “the man who played Lincoln”, but Daniel Day-Lewis immersed himself so deeply into the reedy speaking voice, the Midwestern, folksy cadence, and the labored movement of a man weighed down by more than what any man should be asked to carry, I felt always in the mouth-dropping presence of the actual sixteenth President himself.

It’s funny.  Sometimes, I sorely miss movie stars, the way they leapt from the screen, energizing and elevating everything – worthy and unworthy – that they were in.  Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant.  I can imagine Stewart playing Lincoln, or Gregory Peck, because he did.  But as charismatically cinematic as they were, the movie presences of the past could never have produced the mesmerizing performance of an arguably less striking actor, disappearing into his role.  

I can easily imagine the other four contenders for Oscar’s Best Actor 2012 shaking their heads, thinking, “Man!  Why did he have to do that in my year.”

And here’s the clincher.  Call it “The Coda.”  A two-and-a-half hour movie about accumulating the necessary votes.  An assassination at the moment of victory.  And then, finally, a resurrection, in an ending I would strongly have argued against and been wrong, where we see the re-elected president delivering his Second Inaugural Address, in which, after years of hardship, rancor and unspeakable loss, Lincoln finds within himself the inexplicable humanity to proclaim:

…with malice towards none, with charity for all, with a firmness in the right which God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.

Folks, a talky movie left me blubbering in my seat.

1 comment:

John Repeat Gibbons said...

Have been looking forward to seeing LINCOLN - appreciate your input review. Just recently started re-reading one my favorite novels, William Safire's monumental 1987 work, FREEDOM, a novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. The hardback is 3.8 lbs, 975 pages, another 136 pages of sources/commentary, then a bibliography. Excellent book. According to Safire, only the romantic segments are fiction. And there are not a lot of those, as I recall.