I don’t wish to waste many words on Lincoln, the execrable mediocrity currently on offer from Fox. Sibelius once complained that people compared his music to Tchaikovsky’s: “I cannot understand why my symphonies are so often compared with Tchaikovsky’s. His symphonies are very human, but they represent the soft parts of human nature. Mine are the hard ones.” Steven Spielberg has so lost touch with the hard emotions that he cannot even summon them in a movie about war, slavery, and assassination.
This is symbolized by the movie’s relentlessly mediocre shots: there are no long shots, no images of a tiny Lincoln dwarfed by the White House or the battlefield or the Inauguration; nor any relentless close-ups – nothing extended or intense – nothing that will be put on posters in thirty years as a perfect image of the Civil War.
I do not know whether to blame Daniel Day-Lewis or Spielberg for the former’s performance, but it is all mediocrity: Day-Lewis turns Lincoln into an avuncular old fabulizer, qualified to sit in front of a rural grocery-store and make the customers feel vaguely sorry for him. You feel he would not have had the stuff to run an apple-pie baking contest, much less become Abraham Lincoln: if nothing else, Lincoln was ambitious, and his willingness to destroy the South to save the Union suggests that he had an unusual capacity for principled bloodshed as well. He fired generals continually for their squeamishness at piling up corpses – the Civil War killed as many Americans as all the rest of America’s wars before or since combined – and he gleefully accepted the horrors of Sherman’s March as his “Christmas present.” Ambition is, in fact, made of sterner stuff.
I admire Lincoln tremendously, precisely for this mixture of good and evil that is out of all bounds of normalcy; and good art about great men acknowledges this awfulness. I had a conversation with an intelligent man once in the South who insisted that Lincoln was the worst president this country ever had: that he was the first to bring religious fanaticism onto the American political stage; that he was the first president whose vision of right and wrong was worth hundreds of thousands of corpses; that he established the American habit of trading limited government for imperialist crusade. And others who believe that there is a right and wrong worth hundreds of thousands of corpses will consider him the greatest for the same reasons.
Artistically, representing this is an old problem: you can’t find an actor to play Julius Caesar, because if the actor had the stuff to be Caesar there is no way he would settle for being a mere actor. The responsibility then devolves on the screenwriter, to juxtapose scenes where Lincoln’s inner John Brown is diabolically disguised by the kind of affability that enabled Lincoln to claim 600,000 lives and be lionized for it when Brown could not take down more than four and ended on the scaffold.
Tony Kushner is utterly unfit for this task, and, poor man, does not even seem to be aware it exists. The writing is so poor that it is almost bizarre: I would say that entire scenes could be taken out without injuring the arc of the script, but in fact the script has no arc, and there are no essential scenes at all. Someone decided to make the entire movie about the passage of the 13th Amendment; fine; but then you must identify what the crucial thing was that got the 13th Amendment passed. The movie’s nearest answer to this is: because Lincoln got three men who resemble the Marx Brothers to go around Washington in thirty-second clips talking to Congressmen and getting whiskey thrown in their face. What a sacrifice! Again, no hard emotions: no one loses anything of importance in the movie. And this despite the fact that the assassination occurs in the movie – still you do not feel that it was much of a loss. The way Spielberg handles the assassination is revealing: as it is announced, he pins the camera to Lincoln’s youngest child, who starts screaming. At first I thought this had no effect on me because it was so crassly manipulative. But it also has no effect because it is completely false: very young children do not in fact feel deep grief at death, because they do not really understand it. Which is why the salute of a young JFK Jr. is so much more moving than a child shrieking like a banshee: we adults know how the whole child’s life will be changed, while they themselves do not. Hence Spielberg’s banshee-shot is really an avoidance of the hard emotion involved: the canned grief actually has no real effect, which is why Spielberg in his superficiality likes it. And in historical fact, the 13th Amendment passed easily (38-6 in the Senate, 119-56 in the House), and the Spirit of the Age produced also the much more sweeping and significant 14th, the limits of whose “equal protection” clause we still have not found.
In other words, all the drama of the movie is canned and artificial, the brainfruit of a writer and director who have gotten very lazy being very far from all real sorrow and loss and poverty, the kind of things that keep the edge-tool of the intellect, as they kept Lincoln himself, ready for all kind of sacrifice and principle and hard emotion.
(Today I hear that the movie received 12 Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Screenplay Adaptation. Res ipsa loquitur.)