I don’t trust Steven Spielberg.
There’s no question that any movie he makes will be a superb exercise in craft. The guy is one of the great American contemporary filmmakers, and he’s a finish carpenter; there are no devils in his details that he hasn’t faced head-on. No, I don’t trust him because of Munich. That ruthless, brutal, brave piece of work forces us to wrestle with ambiguity in a way that’s downright European. It’s the antithesis of the carefully groomed and, alas, deeply manipulative type of opus in which Speilberg excels. Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, for two, build to rich crescendos, then drown us in John Williams scores, just in case we aren’t quite scared/sad/elated enough from the pure power of story and image. So which Spielberg will I get? Will he break my heart because he’s so damn good, or will he beat me over the head with how damn good he is?
With Lincoln, I knew where the odds lay. Sure enough, it’s very much in the Schindler/Ryan vein. The movie could be fully powered by Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary performance. His head canted by diffidence and quiet grief, his shoulders stooping under an Atlas load, DDL sets his brow in permanent furrows that look to have been dragged in by a team of Queen Mab’s horses at their most fierce. But while there is promise early on that we’ll see the dream-haunted, melancholy-verging-on-madness Lincoln, one that evokes Tony Kushner’s finest and most surreal moments in Angels in America, we quickly find ourselves on solid, even stolid footing in a folksy Carl Sandburg woodcut, with DDL and everyone else spouting Kushner in a way that reminds you that great playwrights can make for lecturing screenwriters.
This Lincoln is “the purest man in America” according to cranky old Tommy Lee Jones and “so loved by everyone” according to Sally Field. (I can’t decide if she is too old or too famous to play Mary Todd. Yes, a 50-year-old woman of Mary Todd’s sorrows and time could have easily looked as worn and grandmotherly as Field has been made up to look here, but when you’re reminded of Norma Rae every time she opens her mouth, the illusion of Lincoln’s Molly is hard to maintain.) Lincoln, as written here, is hard to hate. Lincoln, as written by history and not even revisionist history at that, was truly despised, as polarizing a figure as Hillary Clinton, and if you can imagine anyone gushing that she is either “pure” or “loved,” well, you, my friend, have a possible future at Dreamworks.
Certainly, DDL should win the Oscar. So should some other folks. There’s some breathtaking editing by Michael Kahn, including one cut I still can’t quite get over. When John Williams isn’t blatantly “quoting” strains from Aaron Copeland’s reverent and overblown Lincoln Portrait, he’s incorporated some marvelous lilting fiddle music. As that fiddler fiddles over some cutting between a great deal of non-battle Civil War activity, Kahn hard cuts to a city square with a fiddler in the background playing the exact strain that we’ve been listening to; his fingers are in the right places on the neck, his bow is bowing the right direction. It’s true sleight of editing hand, and a mastery of detail built to knock any attentive music-lover’s socks off. The gorgeous thing is, no one else will notice, and he did it anyway. That is true artistry. With the vote split on the great William Goldenburg who’s been given a kiss of death double nomination (ask Roger Deakins) for Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, Kahn should squeak in.
Director of photography Janusz Kaminski is also true to superb form. Certain shots are masterworks of simplicity and restraint: Mary Todd’s silhouette, her tiny figure dwarfed by a massive bell-shaped carapace of silk, as she exits a carriage at night and wafts, phantom-like, into the White House. Or a glimpse of Joseph Gordon Levitt (who I’m starting to think must be very, very tired from working so much) in a doorway framed by two empty hospital cots, their sheets white and haunted by the ghosts of too many dead men.
But quite often, you can practically hear the gears clanking into action as the various folks involved in the filmmaking congratulate themselves for making the ratifying of a constitutional amendment exciting! And indeed, one finds oneself wishing rather desperately that congress people were as engaged and dynamic as these guys. Tommy Lee Jones, bellows and curmudgeons and has a grand old time, despite a rather unfortunate wig possibly borrowed from LaWanda Page (who is not, unfortunately, playing one of the reverent and grateful black onlookers, which are about the only roles open to African-Americans; how this movie could use some lethally-aimed “fish-eyed fool” poison on the tip of an Aunt Esther arrow).
Given the very smart decision to make the story about the shenanigans required to pass the 13th, it’s a shame that the movie doesn’t end on an elegant, plangent chord. The first note is struck when Lincoln confides to Mary that he longs to see Jerusalem; whether this had special poignancy for me in the wake of my own father’s recent death—I can imagine my dad expressing the same sentiment—I don’t know. But DDL is so good, so tender in this moment, particularly when everyone in the audience knows that he will never get anywhere near what he refers to as the Holy Land. And in the next scene and just a few days later in movie time, when he walks into the night to head to Ford’s Theater, we see his shoulders just a bit straighter, his head finally held high. It’s enough to make your eyes smart.
But of course, the movie doesn’t end there. This is Spielberg! No, we must witness his young son screaming inconsolably at the news of his father’s death, Mary/Sally’s brittle face on the verge of shattering, the man’s pale bloodless form on the bed. And THEN, my friends, Lincoln rises with the Williams/Copeland swells of 101 majestic strings to regale us with a speech that was never scored to music, that was delivered, originally, by a bone-tired, heartsick man to a crowd silent except for the occasional broken sob.
Thank Daniel Day-Lewis for bringing Abraham Lincoln to unforgettable and perhaps definitive life. And hope that Speilberg, descending from the terrifying, genius heights of Munich, will have the courage to leave this far comfier turf and scale his way back up the mountain. He is, I reiterate, one of our great American filmmakers. He just needs to trust us, and push himself, to be a little braver. Occasional heartbreak ain’t necessarily a bad thing.