Monday, 11 February 2013

Lincoln

Bullseyes:  ③ (out of 5)
So I finally went to see Lincoln.  God knows I tried not to.  I’d trudge out of the house and empty the garbage instead.  I’d put on my coat – then take the dog for a walk.  But in the end, history - and the Oscars probably (this Sunday!  Woo Hoo!) – beckoned me in. 
Lincoln tells the story of the 16th president of America, Abraham…erm, I forget his last name. Apparently it’s a true story, but really – can we be sure?  It seemed believable, at least right up until the moment when the jeep started chasing the president’s wagon as he legs it out of the Senate.  No wait, that was Argo.  Christ, all these true stories – can’t we make shit up anymore?
Lincoln centers on the President’s efforts to drive the anti-slavery bill through the senate, bribing senators, telling half-truths…really, it’s amazing how little has changed.  Daniel Day Lewis is uncanny as Abe.  He looks just like him, and, if the YouTube clips I’ve been watching are any guide, his voice and mannerisms are spot on too. 
I suppose you get a free pass when you play a historical figure who died before the advent of camcorders.  Who knows how good DDL’s take really was?  He could have played him flamboyantly gay, with a limp and a lisp, and we’d have been none the wiser.  Except that they probably would have mentioned that in the history books I suppose.
“Lincoln then folded up the Inaugural Address, thanked the crowd for being ‘Absholuely Shuper’ then skipped off the podium like a fairy”
Sally Field is predictably over-dramatic as Lincoln’s whining, over-bearing wife, and Tommy Lee Jones is a stand out as the grouchy Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans. 
I found myself drawn in close by Tommy Lee, whose character has been pushing for the abolition of slavery for half his adult life.  He gets off the best line in the movie later on, remarking on the infamous vote:
The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”        
I’m not sure if this a quote, but it neatly sums up the whole movie.
The civil war scenes are scant, a fact I was grateful for after suffering through the slime soaked sentimentality of Steven Spielberg’s other recent war time epic, Warhorse.  Although this time the war is merely a backdrop, Spielberg once again cannot resist ladling on the treacle at every opportunity.  For example, an early scene features black and white soldiers trying to recall the words of Lincoln’s famous Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg (you know the one ‘this nation, under God…government of the people, by the people, for the people...” And all that).  Anyway, when the white soldier forgets the words the black soldier finishes it off.  The scene was supposed to demonstrate unity I suppose, and American pride, but it just made me think about all these jingoistic American’s going to gun shows and wittering on about their right to bear arms.
  
Another dramatic technique over-employed by Spielberg is of course, his music.  And, while I loved the pulse pounding piccolos of Jaws, and the lyrical hues of ET’s violin sonata, the endless oboes and ocarinas that pervade Lincoln are obtrusive, cartoonish and transparent.  Why do we need a crumhorn and a clarinet while Lincoln is schlepping through a battlefield looking weary?  Can we not just have dialogue or better still – silence?  The endless barrage of bassoons made me think of Lincoln as Wile-E-Cayote as he steps, witlessly off a cliff…
Wa-wa-waaaah.
Another petty gripe is the casting.  While every actor held his own and the main cast excel, I have to wonder why Spielberg used a mix-bag of the usual period piece suspects.  It would be nice to see some new bearded faces under those ridiculous hats.  And speaking of newbies - why was the ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt picked to play Lincoln’s eldest son?  There I was, immersing myself in the gaslight of the 19th century White House when I’m suddenly confronted with – hey!  Isn’t that the bloke out of 50-50? 
Lincoln is a good movie but it’s not an Oscar one.  It is bone dry – in the way historical films tend to be when they steer too close to the facts – and it fails to resonate.  When the anti-slavery bill finally passes I realized that I was probably supposed to well up but, beyond Tommy Lees occasional pronouncements about its importance, and Lincoln’s own loosely defined obsession, I failed to make a deep connection.  As the people on screen were crying and cheering – I was busy digging around for a nugget at the bottom of my bag of popcorn.
Lincoln’s strongest parts are its quieter moments, when Lincoln is showing compassion and his infamous common touch.  There is a scene where he is about to decide how to respond to the Yankee leaders who are poised to approach Washington with terms for their surrender.  He dictates a message to the clerks then stops to chat about life, fate – and a 2000 year old mathematical theorem.  After listening to the clerks’ thoughts and recalling the famous Euclid proof “if any two things are equal to a third, they are equal to each other” Lincoln changes the last line of his letter - and the course of history. 
As a subject for artistic inspection Lincoln may well be better suited to a more intimate medium, like theatre.  But for a snowy Monday afternoon when there’s bugger all else on it works just fine.  But it still won’t win an Oscar.

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