Lincoln (2012)


Daniel Day-Lewis probably recovers a fair to considerable part of Lincoln; obviously we’ll never know for certain.

My guess (maybe a theory) is that Day-Lewis was able to make an analogy between Spielberg’s self-parody of a production–a middling, cliche-ridden, painfully politically correct, often unclear and otherwise at best (and rarely at that) competently acted production–and the sorry politicians and others in the 1860s who were the hidebound obstacles to the real Lincoln’s lonely, pragmatic idealism. In that mysterious “intuitive” sense of great actors, Day-Lewis used what he learned of the real Lincoln from the Goodwin book and other sources to imagine himself as an embattled actor-Lincoln–to use the cliche, he “identified” from his movie set and himself struggling on it with the long-gone and besieged President Lincoln and that superior hero’s circumstantial predicament–so that to Day-Lewis he and Lincoln were in principle similarly embattled, and thereby Day-Lewis was able to act out a most plausible reincarnation: Lincoln performed the rare, fragile magic of preserving and extending democracy by driving the primal herd through some narrow gates (helped by his new Foreman, Grant) with this heroic performance re-imagined on the set by Day-Lewis as the actor transcended the tired script, timid directing, and the usual-suspect actors–played off them, in fact–and in spite of all these obstacles gave a magnificent performance in the spirit of Lincoln’s triumph, two triumphs over the ever-present human bumbling and short-sightedness faced by the two men over a century apart and that Day-Lewis imaginatively blends into one victory. The triumph of art over farce.

He and Lincoln…they would understand one another. Perhaps they would most appreciate their mutual passion for the good and/or the beautiful which compels them to an exceedingly rare extemporaneous high art–Lincoln spoke and wrote in the moment and with little written revision some of the greatest prose ever, and here for democratic gain; Lewis must be one of the best actors ever, “spontaneous” (maybe “instinctive” is better) in his own fine art. Neither man had much creative leisure in the Crunch of Time in performing their respective acts–talking, writing and acting powerfully enough to knock off their horses surrounding ideologues and shallow screen writers, directors and actors so as to get enough votes on Capitol Hill or to lift far above the usual pedestrian experience entire movie audiences. They could stun you into a conversion from mindless convictions to an incisive decision to take the high ground.

Perhaps Day-Lewis’s “Lincoln” has returned to us to remind of an important matter for our own distracted times: what we need in leaders. Day-Lewis has said that since Lincoln was finished, he has greatly missed his newly discovered friend and exemplar, Lincoln. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Spielberg: the commentary says that he showed perhaps an obsessive drive to render all the interiors in Lincoln exactly the way they looked, down to which books were displayed on which tables. Several historians, specialists in the Lincoln years and his travails, have variously complained about Lincoln at levels far above the positioning of furniture, complaints about factual and dramatic “inaccuracies” and “exaggerations.”  But then, no one should seriously expect such grand historical accuracy to be a priority in Hollywood biopics and historical dramas. The dogged literal verisimilitude of Spielberg in positioning furniture, etc. has nothing to do with that anyway.  Rather, Spielberg resembles Hitchcock in wanting to preserve the look and feel of certain periods, a sort of museum curator’s loving sense of saving dear things, in houses, estates and other places, though Hitchcock in such classic examples as his preservation of the look and feel of British aristocratic life in The Paradine Case (1947) is the more thematic in doing so; the accuracy of detail in Lincoln does little to advance the story. The young Spielberg did capture the look and feel of American middle class culture in the 1970s and 1980s in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and in E.T.: the specific cartoons and toys and meals and clothes and house interiors and so on, if they do not advance those story lines, fit them wonderfully (e.g., the cartoons showing on TV sets are the inevitable episodes in which the standard cartoon characters of the day encounter aliens).

But more complaints about Spielberg over Lincoln crowd forward. Playwright Tony Kushner, one of Spielberg’s favorite screenwriters, writes very long, strenuously correct scripts that often seem ponderous and contrived: I’m betting Day-Lewis was barely able to get through that first scene–he seemed to me uncomfortable–in which he is posed essentially as the seated Lincoln at the Memorial and two black and three white soldiers perform as though choruses in an ancient stage play to make sure we all understand the gravity of the challenge to Lincoln and that we all see that Lincoln is a patient Father to all, especially to people who not only can’t be fooled all of the time but certainly aren’t presently fooled. But we’re not fooled either. Everything the soldiers say is fine and good: the problem is the stagy device, which is embarrassingly forced.

Of Kushner and his sources: examine your memories of To Kill a Mockingbird: The seating of African Americans in the balcony of the congressional chamber–the way it is staged in Lincoln–must have come from the courtroom scenes in the earlier movie. Further, I am guessing Kushner’s idea of “Lincoln” was (a) that Liam Neeson would play the President (thank goodness he pulled out of the role) and (b) that the prototype for Neeson’s “Lincoln” would be Atticus Finch.

Assuming they were held, did Day-Lewis ever trash such notions!

But Kushner produces good moments, too: the funny stories Lincoln tells are all scene-thematic, beginning with the killing of the parrot who keeps announcing the end of the world. Lincoln’s stories are fitting in each circumstance, and yet I’ve found no commentary that says so; just observations that Lincoln liked to tell stories. And Lincoln’s marvelous comment on the limited utility of the compass even though it shows us due North and his wondrous monolog, legalistic yet moral, about his Emancipation Proclamation, are masterful scripting.

An idle but, I think, necessary question: Why is David Strathairn in seemingly every movie these days with any pretensions to importance? He reminds me of a fish–the long face, the tiny range of expressions, the blank stare, the matter-of-fact takes, the sudden exits. Why David?

Tommy Lee Jones: “I need five officers over at First Bank five minutes ago! Smith, check out all felons with addresses in the Sunset District! Kramer, I need a fingerprint search of all 100,000 suspects by 3 o’clock this afternoon! Tell Jenkins at Prints it’s his butt if he fails! All right, Cochran, Wang and Stevens, lets saddle up!” C’mon, now, don’t give me this Thaddeus Stevens stuff about Tommy Lee.

So Lincoln...we don’t get history, we get Strathairn, we get Tommy Lee, we get the Flying Nun gone hysterical, and we get a storyline that’s hard to follow too often and then we get Day-Lewis, and I’m wagering we thereby get some of Lincoln too. Not so much the historical specifics as the sense of the man, his presence, the spirit that made him great. More than we could ask for.