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Monday, November 26, 2012

Lincoln: making the dream work

Some critics have dismissed Steven Spielberg to the role of film-maker as opposed to a film artist.  With Lincoln, he stakes an irrefutable claim to being an artist.  From every aspect--writing, casting, acting, set and costume design, music, cinematography--this film will be one to be studied and discussed by students of film for as long as people watch films. Spielberg in all his films is an accomplished and engaging story-teller.  In this film, he tells the story of one of America's major triumphs, and he sets that story in the context of the many forces at work to produce that triumph in a way that brings all the perspective-embracing factors that separate true art from craftsmanship.

Lincoln is a literary film.  It was written by Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who bases the episode it renders, the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery,  on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which is augmented and amplified from other books chronicling Lincoln, including the biography by Carl Sandburg.  Fellow Illinoisian and poet Sandburg, although often dismissed as "literary" by historians, produced a work that stands as one of the more detailed and evocative captures of Lincoln's character and consequence.  The language of the film is elevated and never falls into the pedestrian for the purpose of bridging dramatic moments.  The language is the vernacular  of the time that conveys the intellectual and moral vigor behind the Thirteenth Amendment and the competing concern of ending the Civil War.  Even when Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, excoriates his opponents by ridiculing their minds as basely inferior, the language operates on a plane that intensely evokes the immense significance of the occasion.   
Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens

Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant and meticulous in portraying the historical Lincoln, but his performance receives equally brilliant support from a host of character actors, such as Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Fields, and Hal Holbrook.  The inspiration for this film is Lincoln himself, whose character lives on and is a force in shaping what America wants to become.  

Lincoln is a story told of a man who himself was a master story-teller, who understood and employed the power of the illustrative story. Lincoln's success as a politician rested on the reputation he earned as a circuit traveling lawyer in Illinois around whom people flocked in the evenings to be entertained and informed by his story-telling.  In the film, his penchant for telling stories at times dismays his cabinet, but those stories provide the balance between aspirations for which people strive and the realities that confront them.  They range from the parable to the tale of the water closet which features a portrait of George Washington.    Real literature places those mundane and ribald realities in importance with the higher laws that we seek to establish as a condition of our lives.    Lincoln could relate the words and thoughts of Euclid, Shakespeare, and Robert Burns as well as spin the earthier humor of the outhouse. 

Lincoln feared that the Emancipation Proclamation would be overturned by courts after the Civil War ended, which would reverse the abolition of slavery.  In examining those final months of Lincoln's life during which he ended the war and established the Thirteenth Amendment as the law of the land, the film focuses on the intensity of the abolition movement.  But for Lincoln, abolition was as much about establishing freedom and equality in the land for everybody as much as ending human bondage for African Americans.  As one who was raised in Illinois, it is difficult for me to ever forget that the reason Lincoln was so revered by the working people of that state was because he spoke for all who labor and seek a fair and equitable return for their work.  Throughout my childhood, a bust of Lincoln held a prominent place in our living room as a reminder of that quest for equality and equity.

Although Abraham Lincoln had only a year of formal schooling, he was a literary man.  He made some of the most powerful speeches in American English, speeches that we go to for the words that define our aspirations for this nation and that lay out the conditions we must meet to realize those aspirations.  Lincoln's greatness was in his ability to work the everyday world to give the words that named our hopes reality in our lives.   Lincoln is a film that concentrates on how he labored to make the terms freedom and equality demonstrable forces that one could participate in, and to make peace the reality that a weary and care worn nation could have.  

I do not ordinarily talk much about films I have  seen or books I have read.  Nor do I write much about them, except for professional papers and journals that few people hear or read.  Even though at one time as a journalist, I was assigned to writing reviews, I tend to avoid them.  Most critics use the works they review as egotistical fodder through which they contrive to  demonstrate their exquisite taste and discernment, not identify the achievements of the work in question.  I find arguments over who has the most salient taste depressing and pointless.  However, Lincoln makes me venture forth with observations.  If you want to be reoriented to what is truly exceptional in American history and life, this is a piece of work which will do it.  

It is a film that shows how politics, as grubby as they are, can legislate the higher laws expressed in language and make them operative forces in our lives.  In this time when the nation is possessed again by a hate-drive division, it is a film that tells a true story of fulfillment of the other possibilities that exist.  In that, it is a literary film. It is literary art that tells essential truth.

Lincoln with son Tad in 1865.

1 comment:

Douglas said...

It may be a very good book and a very good movie, but some of the editorialists and gasbags are trying to use the book and movie as a hammer to beat Obama for the GOP retrograde obstructionism.

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