DAILY | NYFF 2012 | Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN
A few first impressions. Updated through 2/3 with reviews, interviews, clips, and more from a wide range of publications.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln doesn’t officially premiere until it closes the AFI Fest on November 8, one day before it’s theatrical opening. But there was a “Secret Screening” at the New York Film Festival last night, and moments after the credits rolled, it seems, the tweets began flying. Moments later, the tweet collections rolled out. Among the most comprehensive of these are Matt Singer‘s at Criticwire, the Guardian‘s, and the Hollywood Reporter‘s, and to me, of all of the immediate first impressions, three are standouts: @reverse_shot: “‘Lincoln’: Sophisticated, erudite political procedural from Spielberg and Kushner. Genuinely superb. #nyff” @BilgeEbiri: “Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ is the best film Roberto Rossellini never made. Also one of the best Spielberg did make. #notareview” And @eug: “Just saw ‘Lincoln’ at #NYFF. Swept up by grand Americana theatricality & strong perfs. 1800s West Wing? A bit. Engrossing political melodrama!”
Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times: “Centering on Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in the waning days of the Civil War, the movie is dialogue-heavy, focusing on legislative process and party politics as Lincoln and his aides try to win the necessary votes from both fellow Republicans and Democrats across the aisle. There is also a moral crisis at the center of the film, as Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is forced to confront the fact that expediting the end of the war could mean jeopardizing the passage of the amendment. Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), are also locked in a battle over whether to allow son Robert [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] to enlist in a conflict that appears to be over.”
“The screenplay from Pulitzer prize-winner Tony Kushner focuses on just the last four months of Lincoln’s life,” adds Katey Rich, writing for the Guardian. As Lincoln works toward passage of the 13th Amendment, the “backroom deals and legal hurdles to make that happen are immensely complicated, but after some bulky exposition this wheeling and dealing among lawmakers makes for the film’s strongest scenes. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) hires a trio of hooligans (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader) to rustle up votes for the amendment through whatever means necessary, while on the floor of the House of Representatives, anti-slavery lawmaker Thaddeus Stevens (a gloriously scene-stealing Tommy Lee Jones) bellows at pro-slavery Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), with the roomful of men around them banging on their desks and shouting over each other. If only modern American politics were remotely as entertaining.”
“At two hours and 30 minutes or so (no one was quite sure of the runtime beforehand), Lincoln contains only a single battle scene in its opening seconds,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “The rest is pure talk, a keen dramatization of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tome Team of Rivals, that delivers an overview of Lincoln’s crowning achievement in chunks of strategy talk. Ostensibly a well-acted history lesson, it captures the turmoil of the period by observing Lincoln at work rather than wasting time valorizing him.”
“Throughout his career, Daniel Day-Lewis has given us a number of memorable characters, and his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is one of the best,” writes Josh Lasser at Hitfix. Adds Christopher Rosen at the Huffington Post: “Think of Lincoln as the anti-Daniel Plainview, the There Will Be Blood character that won Day-Lewis a second Best Actor trophy in 2007. As portrayed by Day-Lewis, Lincoln is fierce, but also kind-hearted; he lives by a strict moral code, but isn’t afraid to bend the rules to make sure others do the right thing. It’s a multifaceted look at the 16th president, one that Kushner said took years to perfect.”
Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński “does a commendable job of making an inherently unattractive palette look borderline beautiful, especially when dealing with the tonalities of chiaroscuro, but a mostly ugly palette it ultimately is,” finds Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “Thankfully, John Williams’s score, easily the worst offender in Spielberg’s War Horse, is, like the picture, solemn, well-controlled and moving with a dignified air of grace.”
Listening (10’01″). Movies.com‘s Erik Davis and David Ehrlich discuss the film as they stroll out of last night’s screening.
Updates: “Lincoln ultimately compromises as a musty (if occasionally rousing) legal drama,” writes David Ehrlich at Movies.com: “erudite but bloated, the film fails to make the most of its impeccable cast, wasting a Daniel Day-Lewis performance that’s so hypnotizing and human it could be confused for a resurrection…. The movie has the opportunity to be precise, and instead it tries to be definitive. As a result, Lincoln is a stirring history lesson, sure to be a new favorite film for substitute teachers across the country, but a film so determined to help us remember our history can’t afford to be so easily forgotten.”
Movieline‘s Brian Brooks reports on the onstage Q&A.
Update, 10/11: Via Erik Davis at Movies.com, a Q&A with Spielberg and Day-Lewis:
Update, 10/21: “Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s portrait of the Lincoln White House is as a place where the ideals of liberty and the ghosts of slavery interact with the base calculations of realpolitik,” writes Bilge Ebiri. “Kushner’s Angels in America, of course, presented us with a highly symbolic ‘fantasia’ of personal stories, history, and mythology; it was a world where individuals, historical figures, and spectral beings interacted and conjoined, sometimes played by the same actors. Though Lincoln is more grounded in reality, scratch its surface and I think you’ll find a similarly complex network of symbols and myths. This time, however, Kushner’s mytho-poetic conceits have been joined to the power and clarity of Spielberg’s direction. The results are awe-inspiring.”
Update, 10/31: In the New York Times, Charles McGrath profiles Daniel Day-Lewis, who, at 55, “has already won two best actor Oscars, and his performance here, tender and soulful, convincingly weary and stoop-shouldered, will almost certainly earn him a nomination. He’s neither as zombified as Walter Huston in D.W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln, nor as brash and self-assured as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), nor as stagy and ponderous as Raymond Massey, a year later, in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, in which he sounds, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, a lot like the television evangelist Harold Camping proclaiming the end of the world once more.”
Updates, 11/3: “For all the pivotal American history recreated in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln,” writes R. Kurt Osenlund in Slant, “one of the film’s most striking elements is its vast ensemble cast. Packed with familiar faces, the starry company brings to life a dense population of varied souls, each one’s world upended by abolition and the Civil War. Through these people, Lincoln makes palpable a wild cultural impact that spread like a spidery crack in glass. Every individual, no matter how briefly presented (the cameos range from Adam Driver to S. Epatha Merkerson), seems uniquely, yet universally, invested in this landmark moment in time, and the film’s frenzied display of moral murk and diversity trumpets the need for a calming voice of reason. Lincoln, it would appear, was that voice… [W]hat the movie finally communicates is that which seems most fortunate about Lincoln’s life: Though he died as a direct result of his tide-turning actions, the president seems to have been given just enough time in this world to change it.”
More viewing (4’26″). Louis C.K. as Lincoln on SNL.
“The gambit of Spielberg’s Lincoln is to humanize this almost mythic figure,” writes Chris Wisniewski at Reverse Shot. “Its triumph, thanks largely to an erudite and ambitious screenplay that places utter faith in the intelligence of its audience…, is to do so without trying to deconstruct his greatness. It is easy for filmmakers to chip away at the veneer of larger-than-life historical figures; it is far more difficult to acknowledge genius in a mere human and then construct a movie that attempts to capture both that genius and his or her humanity.”
“Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney is foolish enough to compare himself directly to Lincoln,” comments Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, “but whichever man is elected on Tuesday faces a political landscape nearly as divided and poisonous as the one confronted by the 16th president. Moreover, this year’s election will vividly illustrate that the schisms of the Civil War—over differing visions of justice and equality, competing ideas about states’ rights and federal power, cultural divisions between North and South—have yet to heal, long after the passage of many generations and enormous waves of demographic change ought to have rendered them irrelevant. I have no doubt about which candidate Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner believe comes closer to the Lincolnian ideal, but their remarkable film Lincoln offers urgent lessons to both candidates, and the rest of us, about how to wield political power in times of crisis. Whether those lessons still pertain in the dysfunctional climate of the 21st century is another matter.”
Spielberg and Kushner “prove the worth of a smart, riveting and dignified drama,” argues Pete Hammond at Box Office.
Jessica A. Koslow talks with Kushner for the LA Weekly.
Updates, 11/7: “Lincoln is an engrossing, genuinely entertaining film that is also an inspiring piece of Americana in the finest sense of the term,” writes Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies.
“It’s splendid enough to make me wish Spielberg would make a ‘prequel’ to this instead of another goddamn Indiana Jones picture,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “His filmmaking is deceptively simple—the kind of simplicity only a master can achieve.”
American Film talks with Doris Kearns Goodwin about the time Spielberg asked to take a first peek at Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Sean Axmaker looks back on ten of Day-Lewis’s “most committed” performances and tells “the stories behind the incarnations.”
Vanity Fair‘s Julie Miller talks with Sally Field about “her years-long audition process, Daniel Day-Lewis’s unprecedented generosity, and the heart break she risked for the film.”
Updates, 11/11: Before launching into the next round of reviews, let’s note that Slate‘s Forrest Wickman has a terrific guide to the historical accuracy of the film, including links to a gallery that places early photos of key figures alongside the actors who portray them and a separate piece on the sanity of Mary Todd Lincoln. Also, for a Smithsonian Magazine cover story, Roy Blount Jr. talks with Spielberg, Kushner, and Goodwin.
For the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, “the genius of Lincoln, finally, lies in its vision of politics as a noble, sometimes clumsy dialectic of the exalted and the mundane. Our habit of argument, someone said recently, is a mark of our liberty, and Mr. Kushner, whose love of passionate, exhaustive disputation is unmatched in the modern theater, fills nearly every scene with wonderful, maddening talk.” And: “To paraphrase what Woodrow Wilson said of Griffith, Mr. Spielberg writes history with lightning.”
Graham Fuller for Artinfo: “Completing Spielberg’s unofficial trilogy of films about slavery and its legacy, following The Color Purple (1985) and Amistad (1997), it is the sober, mature work of a director who excels whenever he reins in his natural tendency to sentimentalize his stories and doesn’t slip into default mode as a brilliant but sometimes facile metteur-en-scène.”
Writing for Tablet, J. Hoberman notes that it’s hardly “difficult to make the connection between a vilified president who is essentially a conciliatory moderate surrounded by angry adversaries and mistrustful allies and the newly re-elected leader of our own divided land…. While it would be an overstatement to say that American Jews popularized the notion of Lincoln as liberator, it is true that the development of that Lincoln coincides with the Americanization of Jewish immigrants—and particularly the coming of the New Deal….A Baltimore rabbi called the slain president ‘spirit of our spirit and essence of our essence,’ with a nature that was ‘truly Judaic.’ Sixty years later, the comparison between Lincoln and Moses was commonplace.”
“The man portrayed here possesses the gifts we should prize most in a president,” argues the Chicago Reader‘s J.R. Jones: “he takes the long view of history but apprehends the present circumstance, and he has the iron will needed to reconcile the grimy business of governing with the highest ideals of the American experiment. I would never have expected this lesson from Spielberg, a sentimental man who numbers the mythmaking John Ford among his cinematic heroes.”
Lincoln is “one of the most mature films Spielberg has made,” agrees Time Out Chicago‘s Ben Kenigsberg.
“Though his project here is clearly one of conscious self-restraint, Spielberg can’t resist the occasional opportunity for patriotic tear-jerking, usually signaled by a swell of John Williams’s symphonic score,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens. “But in between, there are long stretches that are as quiet, contemplative, and austere as anything Spielberg has ever done.”
For Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, Spielberg “has outdone Griffith and Ford and then some, crafting a thrilling, tragic and gripping moral tapestry of 19th-century American life, an experience that is at once emotional, visceral and intellectual.”
The Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr: “Sweet Lord, how refreshing it is to hear dialogue that crackles with wit and personality—with actual ideas.”
“There is more than a bit of hindsight liberal-conscience streaked through the film,” notes Nicolas Rapold in the L, “but we get a sense of the multifaceted positions on shifting ground that are required of a politician attempting to effect change—the unfashionable notion of representative democracy, most bluntly stated by Jones’s Stevens, leading people even against their will into a better state of the union.”
Time‘s Richard Corliss suggests that Lincoln “joins Argo as a movie that dares to remind American moviegoers that its government can achieve great victories against appalling odds.”
“Anyone paying attention won’t miss the resemblance between the past and the present,” writes Keith Phipps at the AV Club.
Day-Lewis’s performance is “the best special effect that you’ll see in a movie theater this year,” writes the Stranger‘s Paul Constant.
“If this is Oscar bait, then that term has somehow been radically altered,” writes Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York. “Defiantly intellectual, complex and true to the shifting winds of real-world governance, Lincoln is not the movie that this election season has earned—but one that a more perfect union can aspire to.”
Updates, 11/12: “The true tussle of the movie,” argues Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, “is between the Spielberg who, like a cinematic Sandburg, is drawn aloft toward legend—hardly an uncommon impulse when dealing with Lincoln—and the Spielberg who is tugged down by Kushner’s intricate screenplay toward documentary grit. You can never tell which of the two tendencies, the visionary or the revisionist, will come out on top.”
Boris Kachka profiles Sally Field for New York.
Updates, 11/13: The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody finds it “tempting to think of Lincoln as a movie for children, a simplified version of history, a civic-minded primer that illustrates two contradictory notions and reconciles them in a relatively neat and untroubled package. On the one hand, Lincoln comes off as the best lawyer and strategist around, a sort of politician-in-chief who knows what he wants to achieve, understands better than anyone around him the kind of lawmaking that’s needed to achieve it, and insinuates, cadges, exhorts, deceives, and otherwise threads his plan to fruition. At the same time, he’s guided by a single, unshakeable principle—the elimination of slavery—that drives him relentlessly forward, sacrificing other worthy notions on either side, whether ending the war as soon as possible and reintegrating the South into the Union, or pushing ahead to offer reparations that would bring freed slaves toward full practical equality. Spielberg gives Lincoln the kind of idée fixe that motivates most of his protagonists. For all the division that Kushner’s script inscribes in the character… and for all the preternatural grandeur that Day-Lewis brings to the performance, Spielberg’s Lincoln is a fleshed-out cartoon, an Indiana Jones from the history books.”
“The first few minutes of Lincoln play out like a parody of the expectations of Steven Spielberg’s detractors,” suggests Alan Scherstuhl, writing for the LA Weekly. Three Union soldiers “recite back [to Lincoln] the words of the Gettysburg Address as if it’s already something their teachers demand they memorize. Warmly, Lincoln dismisses the boys… But then he ponders the words they’ve parroted back at him, and as his face hardens toward the profound determination that will power the rest of the film and his life… Amistad notwithstanding, a new Spielberg history film is never just a movie: It’s future homework, a multimedia addition to the Smithsonian, a new official imaginative record. Even people who haven’t actually seen Saving Private Ryan know the gut-scraping crack-up of its D-Day, and it might not be possible for mediated young folks to dream of Auschwitz in color. The staying power of these films—due as much to their artistic power as for their Time-cover, 60 Minutes marketing—makes moments like Lincoln‘s bathetic opening all the more sour for Spielberg’s critics. It’s easy to carp, ‘Is it now orthodox American belief that Lincoln sat around like Robin Williams in Hook thinking, “If those kids believe in me, I just might, too”?’… Lincoln is the work of a different director, one truly fascinated by why his subjects do what they do, one who invests each moment with the artistry he has often reserved for setpieces. Despite that scrupulousness, when staring into a subject this grand he sometimes blinks.”
Updates, 11/14: For David Thomson, writing for the New Republic, “to see it in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s second election is the way to go. You can tell yourself that the resulting surge of emotion is a matter of chance, or God-given, but then you realize that Steven must have organized it this way. He foresaw our moment, he designed his opening, and Lincoln is especially momentous as the second Obama administration realizes there is no peace for the elected. It would have had a different resonance if the November 6 result had gone the other way. But Steven—not for the first time—planned an opening that would work either way.”
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski tells Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan how he captured a memorable shot from each of eleven films he’s worked on with Spielberg.
Updates, 11/15: “Even when filming scenes of chaos or carnage, there’s an everything-in-its-place precision to Steven Spielberg’s staging,” writes Kimberley Jones in the Austin Chronicle. “His is an old-fashioned style of moviemaking that can produce soaring entertainment or, alternately, a fussed-over theatricality. Minute to minute, Lincoln moves between these extremes.”
“As always, Spielberg has a tendency to underline twice when once would do,” writes Sam Adams in the Philadelphia City Paper, “but Day-Lewis runs with the movie’s pedantic bent, enhancing one argument with a Euclidean theorem. The painstaking detail that goes into tracking the amendment’s path toward approval is at its core an impassioned defense of representative democracy, with all its flaws intact. It’s like the most eloquent episode of Schoolhouse Rock ever made.”
“There’s no verb left for what Day-Lewis does onscreen,” writes Scott Wilson in the Nashville Scene, “and that’s been true for a while. But whatever studied calculations led him to his Lincoln, with this pained carriage and this cracker-barrel voice and these bottomless silences, the result is seamless and organic—not a performance or even another of his extreme inhabitations but a possession.”
President Obama will host a screening tonight at the White House. Kimberly Nordyke has details in the Hollywood Reporter.
Kushner’s a guest on Fresh Air.
Updates, 11/16: Josef Braun finds that Spielberg “seems to understand that what’s gripping and fascinating about this story requires and rewards our careful attention; to beat us over the head with the gravity of every scene would only distract from the delight of the details.”
Kushner’s let on that he’s already writing on a new project for Spielberg, reports Cain Rodriguez at the Playlist.
“And so the author of Angels in America buys into the Doxa that heterosexuality is a self-evident truth whereas Teh Ghey is invariably ‘speculation.’” But David Ehrenstein‘s not buying.
Updates, 11/18: First, via Ray Pride, the SoundWorks Collection talks with Skywalker Sound’s Sound Designer Ben Burtt about his work on Lincoln:
The New Yorker‘s David Denby writes out “Six Footnotes to the Greatness of Lincoln,” definitely a recommended read that succinctly covers a hell of a lot of ground. And then he wraps it all up: “‘Momentous’ is a strange word to use about any movie. The medium is usually at its best when it’s casually intense, slangy rather than grand. Who would describe Rules of the Game or The Godfather as momentous? Or The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown or The Social Network? Great movies all, but they stick to their own peculiar intrigues and suggest larger meanings only through implication—that’s the wise strategy, as any shrewd producer would tell you. But in Lincoln, Spielberg and Kushner marched straight down the center of national memory, the moment of glory and anguish, and they got it right.”
Updates, 11/19: “Day-Lewis’s Lincoln mesmerizes not with his awesomeness but with the lack thereof,” finds Jason Bellamy. “More than any portrayal I’ve seen, this Lincoln gives a sense of what it must have been like to be in the presence of the real man. Alas, when president isn’t on the screen, telling tales and searching his soul, Spielberg’s movie lacks both subtlety and magic.”
Via Ray Pride:
Updates, 11/20: “You don’t expect [Spielberg] to make a movie that basically argues that democracy depends on a few intellectually and morally superior people outwitting and outplaying their opponents in order to move society forward in ways that most people don’t feel ready to embrace yet,” writes Phil Nugent. “But he is living in our world.”
“Lincoln has been heralded as a great civics lesson,” notes Slate‘s political reporter, John Dickerson. “It is a good but not great one, and not just because there’s sadly little inspiration for our own president to draw from the movie. Stevens’s act of self-denial makes you want to cheer, but the power dynamics and motivations of various parties are confusing and unexplained at times…. The personal dramas of a man who faced as much as Lincoln did are always going to outstrip the legislative fight, but when it comes to the vote, which consumes so much of the movie, in the end it often just feels like so much math.”
Writing at Film International, Wheeler Winston Dixon finds Lincoln to be “a remarkably revealing document. Not on the subject of Abraham Lincoln, of course, but rather on Spielberg himself, who shrewdly centers the film on Daniel Day-Lewis’s remarkable performance as Lincoln, and lets the rest of the film fall away from this center as it may.”
For Movieline, Grace Randolph talks with James Spader, “who provides welcome moments of comic relief as William N. Bilbo—the Democratic operative whose methods of persuasion prove invaluable to the passage of the 13th Amendment.”
Updates, 11/22: Geoffrey O’Brien turns in a typically excellent piece at the NYRBlog. Two passages:
American history films from Griffith and DeMille onwards have in general been tailored for an audience presumed to be incapable of absorbing much information or complexity of motive, and the first casualty of this radical oversimplification has been any attempt to show the glowingly invoked “democratic process” in actual detail. Politics, for the most part, has been something that happens off-screen, either too tedious or too depressingly cynical for its mechanisms to be exposed in their full particulars; presidents are more likely to be shown in moments of public grandeur than in scenes of backroom horse-trading. Perhaps it is the era of cable news, with its permanent theater of politics, that has made it possible to engage more vigorously with the kind of historical detail in which Lincoln revels. An audience that has endured the protracted dramas surrounding the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the raising of the debt ceiling, and followed the statistics of political polling as if it were a new national pastime, is certainly ready to contemplate the overt and covert tactics involved in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Historians will no doubt find ample occasion to pick apart the details of the film and to question its omissions and emphases and imputed motives. It can at least be said that Lincoln leaves room for such questioning. Its approach is open, not closed. Whatever we see and hear suggests other perspectives, other impinging forces, matter for a thousand other films that have not yet been made. The Reconstruction era, a period whose cinematic representation has been pretty much pre-empted by the Confederate pieties of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, would be a good place to start. Not the least of Lincoln’s virtues is to suggest such possibilities.
For Bill Ryan, “the real difficulty of explaining to those who haven’t seen it what makes Lincoln such an absorbing, quietly thrilling, and, for me, deeply moving experience, is that it says a lot of things that are very trite but only if you say them.”
Writing for the New Yorker, Michelle Dean sees in Lincoln “an attempt to rehabilitate Mary, to find in her domestic capabilities a strength that accounts for her image as shrewish, extravagant, and difficult. It’s a little too neat of an interpretation.”
For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri talks with Spader.
Listening. From NPR: “Ronald White, author of A. Lincoln: A Biography, tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer that if a ninth-grader were to write a school paper based on the film, she’d find that its ‘dramatic core’ is basically on target.”
Update, 11/23: “Spielberg showed in Saving Private Ryan that whenever he had to combine contrary points of view about this country into something palatable as well as marketable, shots of the American flag waving in the wind remained the easiest way to drown his contradictions in torrents of rhetoric,” writes Jonathan Rosenbaum for Forward. “Trying this time to combine revisionist details with familiar images of Lincoln as well as with an allegorical lighting scheme, he fails to find any equivalent form of unifying rhetoric. Lincoln remains at war with itself, seesawing relentlessly between the image of the clever conniver who knew how to manipulate others, which emerges from his contemporaries, and the inscrutable anti-slavery demigod brooding alone in his chambers, the quasi-religious image that we already had of a martyred saint. As long as the saint looks familiar and the lighting remains dark, maybe we won’t notice that such a composite portrait doesn’t add up to a single individual.”
Updates, 11/24: “All praise to the much-sainted Steven,” writes Adam Gopnik for the New Yorker, “but let us add a few words about, well, Lincoln’s words, so perfectly imagined and recast by Tony Kushner, and so perfectly inhabited by the great Daniel Day-Lewis, who in his last few roles has been acting on some other plane than any we have been familiar with before.” That said: “Goodwin’s account of Lincoln’s enormous instinctive shrewdness in managing his stroppy cabinet of prima donnas has been confused with the idea that Lincoln’s genius was for conciliation and compromise. This leads, in turn, to the notion that Lincoln was a kind of schmoozemeister, reaching out across the aisle, a sort of Tip O’Neill on the Atkins diet. It can’t be said too often, or too clearly, that the whole point of Lincoln is that he—and the Republican Party he then represented—marked the end of the policy of conciliation and compromise and cosseting that had been the general approach of Northern Presidents to the Southern slavery problem throughout the decades before.”
“Amistad has been much on my mind lately,” writes Bilge Ebiri, “because it makes an appropriate companion piece with Lincoln. Not only are both films about slavery, but they’re about the specifically legal and political machinations by which the institution was maintained and then finally dismantled…. Lincoln and Amistad also have a relationship to one another that resembles that of Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. Both Amistad and Schindler are small tales of triumph within broader, unspeakable tragedies. In turn, Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan tackle the rather brutal means by which those tragedies were resolved, if not actually undone.”
Update, 11/26: Lincoln “is about the triumph of a political compromiser, and it argues that radical change comes about by triangulation, by back-room deals, and by a willingness to forego ideological purity,” writes Aaron Bady for Jacobin. “It is, in short, a barely veiled argument that radicals should get in line, be patient, be realistic.”
Updates, 12/2: “[T]oo many leftists concede this characterization of Lincoln and the Republicans to the Obamaphiles,” writes Connor Kilpatrick, managing editor of Jacobin, in something of a reply to Aaron Bady. “They seem to believe that the first crop of Republicans did little more than press an official rubber stamp on ‘history from below’ which had already delivered its verdict across the land…. The question is why are we letting Spielberg, Kushner, and Obama get away with this? Abraham Lincoln and the early Republicans (to say nothing of the Liberty Party or Free Soilers before them) shared a vision of a radically different society. Wiping out slavery—either through immediate abolition or through the ‘cordon of freedom’ policy of the Republican Party—was hardly a technocratic reform. And when it became clear that the only way to get there would be through revolutionary means, they took it without flinching.”
Corey Robin at Crooked Timber: “What is so odd about this film—and something I would not have anticipated from [Kate Masur's NYT op-ed]—is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in its objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: ‘The fate of human dignity is in our hands.’ Our hands. Not theirs.”
Updates, 12/10: “It is a brilliant script,” writes Gary Morris at Bright Lights After Dark, “marvelously performed, and destined to take a prominent place in the pantheon of Lincoln films right next to the heretofore greatest of them—John Ford’s classic Young Mr. Lincoln—which it most resembles for its sheer purity of vision. Ford’s Lincoln epitomizes the young Illinois politician’s awe for the Law, which acts as Lincoln’s shield and buckler in defense of the common people (typified by two brothers he defends against a charge of murder). Spielberg’s post-millennial Lincoln epitomizes the more experienced politician’s awe for Justice (as distinguished from the malleable Law), which is to be sought by whatever means necessary and inevitably involves sacrifice, perhaps of one’s very soul. There’s more than a touch of Faust in this script.” Related: Michael Schulman for the New Yorker on a conversation between Kushner and Rachel Maddow; and two clips from Criterion, one from Young Mr. Lincoln, the other featuring Henry Fonda looking back in 1975 on playing the role.
At Movie Morlocks, Susan Doll looks back on “Reel Presidents: From JFK to Millard Fillmore” before turning to a review of onscreen portrayals of Lincoln; turns out she needs two beefy columns to cover them: parts 1 and 2.
“Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have invited the entirety of the U.S. Senate and their spouses to a screening of Lincoln on Dec. 19,” reports Austin Bernhardt at the AV Club.
Updates, 12/16: “While most political journalists have viewed the film with an eye on the current political stalemate, our most prominent historians have looked for accuracy and context.” For the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kelly Candaele focuses on the historians and concludes: “Moving away from the sterile debate over whether he was a ‘compromiser’ or a man of ‘principle,’ the film shows he accepted the fact that, in his political life at least, there would be a constant tension between the two.”
Via Ray Pride:
“Lincoln might be the most staid, old-fashioned movie that any major studio will release this season, at least outwardly,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “Inwardly, it is almost insanely daring…. Lincoln is about a president who pushes transformative legislation through Congress by compromise, corruption and double-dealing, but above all by securing the support of the most extreme left-wing members of his party. Why can’t we have a president like that? If we could, then maybe we would experience in real life the profound joy, satisfaction and humility that are the emotional payoffs of Lincoln.”
Michael Wood in the London Review of Books on Day-Lewis’s performance: “[Y]ou feel you are looking at two quite different people. First, an Abraham Lincoln of legend, loyally reproduced, the man he is supposed to be—’the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln,’ Tolstoy said, quoted by Goodwin in an epigraph—but quietly, modestly set before us. And second, a man inside this man who is far from sure that ‘Lincoln’ is anything other than a caricature, the front for a wily politician and a worried father and husband, the screen where the necessary projections can gather. I don’t mean Day-Lewis is ironic about his role, although there are one or two nice touches of that in the film. I mean Lincoln is ironic about his role, and it’s an extraordinary achievement to get this across without ruining the icon.”
Updates, 12/23: “I now think that I initially reacted to Lincoln the way that so many Radical Republicans reacted to Lincoln himself,” writes the New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg. “I was demanding perfection, and pouting when perfection wasn’t forthcoming.” But Kushner and Spielberg “took on an immense, probably insuperable challenge. If they did not fully meet my hopes and expectations (nor, I suspect, their own), they succeeded in making a very fine film, one that has no equal, no parallel that I know of, in the entire movie canon. Lincoln will be watched for many decades to come.”
“The term ‘triangulation,’ as it is used in politics, is said to be a dirty word, a cynical tactic,” writes Jim Emerson, who recommends downloading and reading the screenplay. “But in this case, as one modern strategist phrased it, ‘isn’t about compromising on principles or policies, but about preempting conservative wedge issues by addressing them through progressive policies’—or, finding a way to accomplish your goals without alienating one side or another, through careful use of language and limits…. Lincoln weaves images of such triangulation through the entire film.”
Dylan Callaghan interviews Kushner for the Writers Guild.
Update, 12/26: David Bromwich, writing in the New York Review of Books, has a few bones to pick with Kushner’s screenplay, but ultimately: “Lincoln remains an honorable movie compounded of irresolute but mostly upright intentions; and its strengths are only a little undercut by the synthetic quality of its ambition. But that has always been the price of Spielberg’s energy and his enormous competence.”
Updates, 1/12: Jonathan Rosenbaum recommends getting your hands on a copy of the February 2013 issue of Harper’s in which Thomas Frank “[clarifies] how the celebration of corruption that has American media and the Academy in such a state of orgasmic euphoria can actually be traced back to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.”
But in the New Republic, Timothy Noah argues that the principle source of Kushner’s screenplay is not Team of Rivals, but rather, “almost certainly Michael Vorenberg’s Final Freedom: The Civil War, The Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment, first published by Cambridge University Press in 2001. Vorenberg’s book (which I made my TNR ‘best book of 2012‘ pick) is widely recognized as the definitive history of the political machinations involved in passing the 13th Amendment, a subject that received scant attention prior to publication of Final Freedom because most historians have tended to focus instead on the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln is known, after all, as the Great Emancipator, not the Great Manipulator of Congress Into Codifying the Executive-Branch Freeing of Slaves, Which Only Ever Applied To Confederate States, In A Constitutional Amendment That, After Lincoln’s Death, Still Required Passage In State Legislatures.”
Kushner has responded, acknowledging a debt to Vorenberg, but adding that Final Freedom was only one title on “a short list of 20 or 30 books that were significant to me… I would never take someone’s work, make a play or movie about it, and just hope that nobody noticed.” Noah: “After we spoke, Kushner sent me a partial list of the books he read, ‘entirely or in part,’ while working six years on the screenplay.” Which, of course, he then posts at TNR.
Updates, 1/26: Lincoln has opened in the U.K., and for the TLS, D. D. Guttenplan notes that Kushner “may have as deep a grasp of the complexities and conflicts in American history as anyone now writing for a mass audience” and “his first obligation is to the drama, not the details. Yet as the flurry of fact-checking articles which greeted Lincoln‘s American debut attest, it is apparently possible to spend the film’s entire 150 minutes with pad in hand noting down anachronisms and historical elisions…. Yet to complain about such matters, however historically well-intentioned, is to miss a point that should have been obvious from the film’s choice of title.” And: “This Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect.”
More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, 5/5), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 5/5), Ryan Gilbey (New Statesman), Demetrios Matheou (Arts Desk), Nick Pinkerton (Sight & Sound), and Tim Robey (Telegraph, 4/5).
Update, 2/3: “Historically,” argues Paul Kincaid at Big Other, “the major problem with the film is that it is a white person’s version of black history.”
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