Brendan’s Log: LINCOLN (2012)

October 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week I changed my mind about Steven Spielberg, which I guess is something of a major life event if you could properly chart the rising and falling tastes of young movie snobs. I was truly wrecked by his A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE only twenty minutes in; it contains passages of intense, terrifying power, the sort of film that awakens your inner child, takes it by the hand, and then leads it into the woods and abandons it there forever. All else aside, I had rarely seen a film of his that struck me beyond a sense of being impressed with its technical accomplishment since his TV debut, DUEL.

LINCOLN is such a picture. Without being a policy junkie or even someone who pays dutiful attention to the newspapers, the pull of Tony Kushner’s ornate script, each scene a wood carving, depletes all reserves of resistance. It is so tailored for its director that even among the long monologues which seem fashioned from primary source documents of the President’s own speeches or memoirs and the Congressional proceedings, Kushner has given William N. Bilbo, Richard Shell, and Col. Robert Latham (characters played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes) moments in the sun. In a sense they operate as mechanical fixtures of the plot, demonstrating the necessity of a certain wheeling-and-dealing to win the necessary votes on Lincoln and the 13th Amendment’s behalf. They are also sublime comic figures in the tradition of John Ford (aped, gorgeously, as recently as Spielberg’s WAR HORSE), existing as whole persons even as they mostly drift to the outskirts of Spielberg’s grand American tapestry.

For LINCOLN’s great achievement lies in its metonymic quality, its procedural how-a-bill-becomes-an-amendment focus honing in on one facet of American government (Congress, though of course Lincoln in a couple of scenes with his cabinet walks us through some operations of the Executive branch) to illuminate a moment in national history. I doubted Spielberg’s ability to make a convincing film about the abolition of slavery with nary a black character in sight. Kushner seems to have inserted Gloria Reuben’s Elizabeth Keckley largely as a theatrical device; she stands silent in several scenes, observing the conflict between whites as she remains passive in a decisive moment in her people’s history. Had she remained silent, it would have been a cheap joke, a facile undermining of the film’s nuanced approach to the process of securing basic human rights. The inevitable moment in which she and Lincoln speak frankly to each other about their relationship doesn’t much twist our perception of the President, but is gratifying nonetheless in the balance it strikes between depicting him as a radically enlightened individual and as a person with prejudices of his own.

Spielberg’s visual trademark has long been a certain look of awe in the faces of his actors, usually turned upwards at a spaceship or the craning neck of a brachiosaur. No such fantastic vision occurs in LINCOLN, replete though it is with shots of sumptuous period detail; in longer takes, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski evokes both Max Ophuls and Terence Davies. In this latest picture it is the impending historical moment which invokes reverence, most often personified through Daniel Day-Lewis’s keenly affected performance, a man who often withdraws into himself, mumbling a long monologue about nothing in particular when he feels the forces of time and memory beginning to swirl around him. The faces of the many supporting players who are his audience flicker with trepidation, an almost religious uncertainty. Like the representatives about to pass an amendment, they have only a vague sense of what they are watching, not because Abraham Lincoln possessed any mythical, mystical qualities, but because they’re witnessing only a brief moment in the life of a person, like a country, only possible to comprehend from a distance. – Brendan 

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