Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 November 2012

Fifty Shades of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln, as you probably know, is the second Abraham Lincoln movie to come out in 2012, and while I suspect that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will garner a lot less awards-buzz this season, it remains in my heart. I want to note in passing, as well, that there were some truly awesome things in AL:VH.
  1. Harriet Tubman is in the movie for no apparent reason, but it got a huge laugh in the theatre when I saw it.
  2. Zombies and vampires are apparently interchangeable for Timur Bekmambetov.
  3. The USAmerican Civil War was a fight between the living and the undead where the entire Confederate Army was made up of legions of vampires.
  4. My main problem with AL:VH was that the vampires were so gross and awful. The truth is, that for me (and given the widespread Twilight obsession I suspect I am not alone) vampires are kind of fabulous. They live forever; they kill people in the most intimate and erotic of ways; they're creatures of the night; and they're usually dressed very well. So why would you want someone (even Abraham Lincoln) out there hunting them
  5. Dominic Cooper is still really really hot.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, we can talk about Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's new movie Lincoln. I suspect you have probably already seen it. And unlike their last collaboration, I really loved Lincoln. It's just really well done. Great acting – the juicy roles are played by Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field: look for them all at Awards time. But the smaller roles are beautifully played as well. It's an excellent company including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill (how I love that man), Gloria Rueben, Lee Pace, David Costabile, S. Epatha Merkerson, Adam Driver, Julie White, and so many more.

The standout here, however, is Kushner himself. The writing is just gorgeous. The film is filled with exquisite turns of phrase and superb verbal flourishes. It captures the time period beautifully, while feeling familiar and intimate, treading the fine line of ironic hindsight while allowing us the pleasure of re-living a drama the filmmakers know that we all probably know very well. As beautiful as the performances are, it is Kushner's writing that made me love this movie. And (unlike other filmmakers with recent films about USAmerican history *cough* J. Edgar *cough*) Kushner's writing doesn't feel bloated or stagey; the script never grandstands.

I have my gripes, of course: mostly with Spielberg. Lincoln has three endings; Spielberg can't handle ending a film only once. He has to end it repeatedly. When Lincoln said "It seems it's time to go, though I'd much rather stay" (or something like that) and walked down that hallway in one of Janusz Kaminski's rich shots, I thought (as I inevitably always do in a Spielberg movie) end it here; end it here. But I knew he wouldn't. I knew that was only Ending #1. The man is good at endings, I admit, but we really don't need them all. The first ending is almost always the best ending.

In truth, the whole film is a kind of exercise in Spielbergian dramaturgy. I mean, we know from the get-go that the Thirteenth Amendment is going to pass and that the Civil War is going to end (Rebecca Schneider's book notwithstanding). And so the entirety of Lincoln – if we remain on the level of plot – is a kind of buildup to something terrible that ends up being benign after all, just like Embeth Davitz's shower in Schindler's List that really was water after all.

But this is a film about politics and not a film about surprises or cliffhangers. Spielberg can do this, too, of course, and indeed his considerable skill at suspense makes a film about passing a piece of legislation into a true nail-biter, even though we already know it is going to pass. In a way, what I am talking about is truly genius-level filmmaking.

Of course, a part of what Kushner & Spielberg are doing here is making another film about Lincoln within a cinematic history of Lincoln. On the Colbert Report this week Kushner said that the last important film about Lincoln was John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda. That is clearly false (I'm not actually sure why he would say such a thing) because John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois starring Raymond Massey (who is absolutely amazing as Lincoln) was released some 8 months after Ford's film.

I am not trying to chart a history of representations of Abe Lincoln in cinema, but I think it is significant that each of these films attempts to do a different thing with Lincoln. For starters, each of these films chooses a specific plotline to follow: a small section of Lincoln's life. Only Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter attempts to tell the whole story of Abraham Lincoln; the others choose a small aspect of the Lincoln story and focus in on it. Young Mr. Lincoln follows a court case in which Lincoln is basically a kind of down-home criminal lawyer, solving a case in order to free two young men falsely charge of murder. Fonda plays Lincoln like a young Matlock, solving crimes and reminiscing about his mother in down-home drawl. Abe Lincoln in Illinois follows Lincoln's love affair (and tempestuous rows) with Mary Todd, as well as his rise to power in the United States government and his election as president. Abe is a film about Lincoln's anti-slavery politics.

All of these films – including the one about the vampires – are hagiographic.

I want to say a bit more about politics, because to me Lincoln is a movie about Barack Obama. Here Dr. Schneider's book again deserves mention because although Lincoln's Abraham Lincoln is clearly not Obama, he's not not Obama.

2012's Lincoln focuses on Lincoln the politician – as he tries to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed through the U.S. House of Representatives. But instead of working to establish Lincoln as a saint, Kushner and Spielberg take his sainthood for granted, expecting his sainthood to confer its good will onto the political process itself. There is an entire section of the film in which Lincoln attempts to convince Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens to be less radical, to rein it in in order to get this legislation passed. The film argues that we need to be concerned about the present just a bit more than we ought to be concerned for our idealistic principles. In other words, politics – which is, for Kushner, the way we get (good) things done in this world – are infinitely more important than being right about what it is that we believe.

In the old saying "He'd rather be right than president", Kushner (I think correctly) thinks it is better to be president. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing, but Lincoln read to me like an apology for the conservatism of Barack Obama's first four years as the U.S. President. Lincoln says that in order to get things done, blood must be shed. Lincoln doesn't really believe in revolution but rather in slow progress, gradual inevitable change made possible by great men and women who sacrifice their own lives (literally) in order to open up spaces for such change. And Lincoln believes in this change with all of its heart. It is a film filled with hope, filled with the articulation of such possibilities. Lincoln is an excellent film because – like all of Kushner's texts – it is profoundly ambivalent about the principles in which it believes. Further (and thankfully), Lincoln is not particularly interested in convincing me that its own point of view is the correct one, but it is interested rather in asking me to imagine the same possibilities imagined by its protagonists.

Lincoln is, after all, a film about having faith in democracy and in the people themselves. It is a profoundly hopeful film that wants to believe that giving people the freedom to make decisions about their own lives is the best and only ethical way to govern.