Monday, January 07, 2013

Spielberg's Lincoln

Well, we steeled our nerves and popped out to take in Spielberg's Lincoln today--the oldies' matinee, populated by folks (like us) who could have actually met a Civil War veteran.   "Steeled ourselves" in the sense that there are so many ways it could have gone wrong, and I suppose the bluntest thing to say is that it avoided many of them: in a phrase, not nearly as bad a movie as I feared.

But I can do better than that.  I was on guard against cheap sentimentalism and schoolmarm preaching, and there was a bit of both.  But not nearly as much as there might have been, and you'd have to set it off against quite a few good things.  Daniel Day-Lewis inevitably and yes indeed, he did seem to look the part and get the character right,  mostly.  Not perfect: I don't think he mastered a plausible Illinois twang, and after a half an hour I did get tired of  him, as he slid into the kind of history-movie poortentiousness that nothing in the genre can do with out.    But for catching the character, I'd say Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln did even better: she brought across everything you might have hoped or feared about this poor, driven, bewildered and deeply unhappy woman.  As Thad Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones was himself which is just as it could be, and my guess is that his surprised last scene is as true to life as anything in the movie.   It was a bit unnerving to see Hal Holbrook (is he really 87?) looking less like Mark Twain than like Teddy Kennedy.

But the real charm of the picture is the secondary stuff. Like: the array of hustlers and time-servers in Congress and around the White House like swarms of live bees.  Like: the tobacco smoke, the overdone furniture, the underdone lighting, the general air of squalor and sleaze.

Spielberg's presentation, taken as a whole, you'd have to call "Shakespearean,"  in a narrow and particular sense.   That is: he has mastered the Shakespearean device (from the Henry plays, if not elsewhere) of telling a private story  woven into a larger public tapestry.  The comparison does identify a puzzle, though. Namely, granting that Spielberg veers into tendentious kitsch, you'd have to acknowledge does so way more.  Yet somehow I can bear Shakespearean kitsch with so much more equanimity than any contemporary exemplar.   Not sure I know why the distinction: my best guess is that with Shakespeare, I know can keep my distance; I am not so fearful of getting sucked in.  Another Shakespearean parallel: here as there, I suppose one is tempted to search for contemporary echoes.  Can we think of any other rail-thin, loner, Illinois politician (for example) who just might be under appreciated by the lesser lights of his own time.  No, I think the answer is "no," as in "don't go there," but it's hard to resist.

Mrs. B does add a provocative afterthought: she says it's a shame there wasn't some way of telling the story of how Lincoln's world-view evolved over his lifetime and in particular, of course, his attitude to slavery.  There's something inevitably bogus about presenting our heroes as carved in stone--as if, just hypothetically for example, you wanted to stick them into a temple on the Washington Mall.  I suspect she is thinking of the kind of Lincoln you find in Eric Foner's Fiery Trial, or in what is still my own favorite Lincoln book, Honor's Voice.  I take her point although I suppose the best you can say is that that would be a whole nuther movie and one even harder, I suspect, to get right.


Toni said...

As soon as I saw you'd reviewed Lincolm, I knew I had to read it to Tony. Neither of us are likely to see it until it's on TV (well, Tony might).

Interesting comment about Daniel Day Lewis. He's such a good actor but I also tend to get bored -- There Will Be Blood comes to mind. I was admiring his acting skills AND I was bored at the same time.

And yes, I agree with Mrs. B's assessment without having even seen the movie. I could tell from other reviews that the movie didn't depict his views evolving.

Nice to hear that Sally Fields is still able to give a Laura Linney, for example, a run for the money.

Jimbo said...

Great review and insights. Obviously, there is no way to make a single movie of Lincoln. Quite aside from his own character, the Civil War was the most traumatic period in our nation's history and clearly is still not yet resolved to this very day.

Steve Reynolds said...

I am not sure that anyone could make a movie about Lincoln that was not hagiography. Not much development in A. Lincoln. Charming as Mr. Lewis and Mr. Spielberg present him. No such problem with Mary Lincoln, Sally Field's performance was worth the ticket price by itself.

Buce is right, it is an oldster's matinee At two score and fourteen I was one of the more youthful viewers in our cell at the multiplex. Nonetheless the commercials shown were for video games and explosion movies. Are we immune to advertising after forty? Or is it too much trouble to tune multiplex ads?