Sunday, November 18, 2012

“THE MORNING OF THE VOTE:” Spielberg’s History Lesson: Lincoln


When it comes to the Civil War, I have always been more interested in what it was like for the individual nameless soldier thrown into the vast hell of combat rather than in the large mythologized characters of Grant and Lee and Lincoln. This will be shocking to many Civil War enthusiasts, but my least favorite Civil War novel is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. It does little to depict the gritty horror of the most horrific battle in American history. Instead, it focuses on famous generals who stand around discussing strategy and spouting memorable quotations. My favorite Civil War novel, which focuses more on individual soldiers and memorably presents the Battle of Antietam as a savage slaughter, is Confederates, written by the Australian author Thomas Keneally.

For this reason, one of my favorite moments in Spielberg’s Lincoln involves the nameless “Second White Soldier,” played by Dane (Chronicle) DeHaan, who stands nervously in front of Lincoln, swearing and stuttering as he tries to recite the Gettysburg Address. I suppose the device is a little corny, but I see this character. He is real. As for Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis does a masterful job of portraying the thoughtful, erudite, yarning, folksy side of the great American president, speaking in a tight-jawed, laid-back country voice. However, in a long film that has trouble generating a compelling pace, Lincoln’s yarns wear thin. Day-Lewis injects some life into his character and the film when he pounds the table and willfully rants about getting what he wants: the Thirteenth Amendment, and very poignant are the quiet moments with son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who is fascinated by images of slaves (a nice way to illustrate the film’s focus), sets up his lead soldiers on War Department maps, and drives his goat-drawn cart around the White House. But Lincoln the man is eventually overshadowed by big events and hobbled by Spielberg's reverent tone.

Spielberg’s topic is a grand one: the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment that ends that “peculiar institution” of “involuntary servitude” that is America’s Holocaust. But as Spielberg gets wrapped up in treating this grand topic with the same high reverence he treats the tragic ordeal of Jews in the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, throwing in the same close-up of a flame that dissolves to an image of Lincoln giving his second inaugural address, Lincoln the man recedes into the background of House bickering, pushed aside too by the film’s painstaking effort to eke climactic moments out of each House member’s momentous vote. Amidst the squabbling, Tommy Lee Jones takes center stage as Thaddeus Stevens, though I found myself preferring the solid presence of David Straithairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

Spielberg’s film is an enjoyable, well-performed, serviceable history lesson, full of chuckle-inducing quips and anecdotes as it focuses narrowly and reverently on one event in Lincoln’s last year alive even though it is based on a work of non-fiction (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) that covers multiple dramatic events during the last five or six months of the Civil War. Yes, yes, I know Lincoln is about the Thirteenth Amendment and not about the Civil War, but I feel the film loses power and historical context as Lincoln spins his yarns and congressmen quibble over whether or not all men are created equal, and I found myself hankering for the story to break out of its claustrophobic interiors into something shocking and dramatic that might have broken the slow pacing and provided a panoramic backdrop for this historic debate.

My favorite scene, a masterful image, comes early in the film when we see Lincoln’s spooky, ominous dream. This hints at the great film Lincoln could have been - a haunting look at the last months of the great man's life as he juggled management of political rivalry over the Thirteenth Amendment with orchestration of the final fierce campaigns of an epic war.

Why not parallel the suspense and drama of the House debate with some cuts to the suspense and drama of the war? When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) describes his plans for the bombardment of Fort Fisher in which Union ships will fire more than a hundred shells per minute, why not cut to a shot of this fearsome assault made possible by the North’s vastly superior resources? Before Lincoln visits the Petersburg battlefield, why not show Grant’s all-out advance on the Confederates’ fifty-three-mile-long defenses, to show Grant’s assertive total-war battle tactics and how Lee was still able to escape so that he could stubbornly prolong the war? Instead of something expansive, Spielberg takes time for a puzzling, lifeless, overly reverent tableau depicting the surrender at Appomattox. Set to a choral lament, the image seems to pay last-minute homage to Robert E. Lee. The violence is kept off-screen to the very end when Lincoln and his wife, Mary, played splendidly by Sally Field, go off to Ford’s Theater, (an episode that very closely resembles Lincoln's departure for the theater in this summer's Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). When a man runs on stage to shout, “The President’s been shot!” it is on the stage of another theater in which Tad is viewing a swashbuckling play.

For good or ill, Spielberg keeps his narrow focus, the vote is won, and Thaddeus Stevens’s African American housekeeper lies in bed with him and reads the Thirteenth Amendment aloud. (Thankfully, it is short.) In this way, Spielberg teaches us and teaches us and teaches us. Indeed, he doesn’t trust us to know a little bit about the period. When Jared Harris first appears, it is obvious that this stern, bearded, cigar-chomping commander is Ulysses S. Grant, but the subtitle reads, ULYSSES S. GRANT. Conversely, subtitles name the three Confederate peace commissioners, one after the other, even though we don’t need to know their names; we know they are the peace commissioners and that is enough. Later, when the congressmen gather for what is obviously the beginning of the debate, we see the words, THE HOUSE DEBATE BEGINS. When it is obvious that the vote is going to take place in a day or two, we cut to custodians setting things up in the empty House chamber, and John Williams’s momentous music cues us to what we know is going to take place, but still the subtitle tells us it is THE MORNING OF THE VOTE.

9 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Hokahey---
I would venture to suspect that had Spielberg went the way of showcasing the war or significant battles, he may have been subjected to criticism along the lines that he was employing his famously grandiose compositions for emotional effect. Likewise I think he was right to stay clear of the assasination, with only the outburst of grief from Lincoln's son as the announcement of his passing. No, I think Spielberg was right to stay focused on January 1965, and the political maneuverings that led to the dramatic roll call vote, Declaration of Independence style. Lewis did indeed embody Lincoln (I'm sure he'll capture his record-breaking third Oscar for it) and I certainly do agree with you that Straithaim is underrated as Seward. But Jones and even "they really like me" Sally Field contribute extraordinary performances. My own favorite Civil War novel is McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" but I know that's the easy way out. Spielberg and Kusher have collaborated here on a measured, subtle and enveloping work, that I think will be increasingly held in high esteem.

You have as always penned a perceptive and thought-provoking piece, which resonates even more when one considers you teach history!

Keneally also vote SCHINDLER'S LIST, right?

Hokahey said...

Sam, thanks for the comment. And, right, coincidentally enough, Keneally also wrote Schindler's List.

I hear your argument about being criticized for injecting battle scenes for emotional effect, but something needed to pump up the pace and the emotional effect because I came away feel detached from the whole thing. Battles, the assassination, something needed to make the whole thing messier, more dramatic. It played too much like a History Channel dramatization.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm so glad you called attention to the movie's odd/inconsistent use of subtitles/captions. Indeed, why does Grant require one and not Lee? And why to the three Southern reps need them? And, my lord, yes, why did we need to be told that the debate begins?

(Speaking of Grant: Harris never really loses his British accent.)

I'm surprised you liked Sally Field, to be honest. I didn't dislike her. But she's never done anything for me.

"Lincoln the man recedes into the background of House bickering, pushed aside too by the film’s painstaking effort to eke climactic moments out of each House member’s momentous vote."

Yes, indeed.

Hokahey said...

Jason - I have always been a harsh critic of Sally Field, but her style seemed to fit Mary Todd, known for her histrionics, just like Sally. I thought she was quite good in the scene in which Mary holds up the receiving line to berate Stevens.

Sam Juliano said...

It appears that all the pundits are now saying that Field will not be winning her third Oscar as originally thought, nor the lion's share of the awards' groups. All the talk is now on Anne Hathaway, who plays and sings Fantine in LES MISERABLES. The musical, due to release on Christmas Day is now getting amazing advance buzz, and a screening of the film at Lincoln Center this past week resulted in a ten-minute standing ovation for Tom Hooper, and all kinds of deafening hyperbole. We will all see soon enough. Ha!

Hokahey said...

Sam - Thanks for the note. Yes, it's easy to predict that Les Miserables will clean up at the Oscars. The Academy loves a musical! I plan to see it - I loved the stage musical - though I'm not a fan of film versions of musicals. I'll be especially glad I won't have to see the extended making-of promo again. I've seen it so many times!

Adam Zanzie said...

Hokahey, I'm late to this post, but I'll try to respond to each of your points.

Why not parallel the suspense and drama of the House debate with some cuts to the suspense and drama of the war? When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) describes his plans for the bombardment of Fort Fisher in which Union ships will fire more than a hundred shells per minute, why not cut to a shot of this fearsome assault made possible by the North’s vastly superior resources? Before Lincoln visits the Petersburg battlefield, why not show Grant’s all-out advance on the Confederates’ fifty-three-mile-long defenses, to show Grant’s assertive total-war battle tactics and how Lee was still able to escape so that he could stubbornly prolong the war?

I have left a comment on Jason’s blog (yet to be posted) addressing these same criticisms, but my hunch is that Spielberg and Kushner realized that the dialogue in this film would be so entertaining in itself that battle sequences would not be necessary. Now, it is obvious that you did not care for their approach, since you say you had problems with the film’s pacing, but personally… I have often found that biopics which rely on action sequences for their entertainment value are evidence of the filmmakers not having much material to tell their story. For example: I admire Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, but I am not a great admirer of it because some of its “action” sequences, in which Gandhi himself was not even present (particularly the Amritsar massacre), disrupt the film’s tonal shifts somewhat; they do not feel as appropriate as, say, the battle sequences in Lawrence of Arabia, which worked so well because T.E. Lawrence himself really did fight in those battles.

I would argue that for Spielberg to pack Lincoln with multiple battle sequences would have been proof that he did not find Lincoln’s life very interesting, nor his important decisions in the service of the law. To be sure, I appreciated that Spielberg *begins* the film with a battle sequence, because it’s an attention-getting opening grab. It has that one image of a soldier’s face being drowned in mud that hangs over the rest of the film so terrifyingly that I never once found myself yearning for another battle sequence. The opening battle sufficed, and Kushner’s masterful prose did all the rest.

The violence is kept off-screen to the very end when Lincoln and his wife, Mary, played splendidly by Sally Field, go off to Ford’s Theater, (an episode that very closely resembles Lincoln's departure for the theater in this summer's Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). When a man runs on stage to shout, “The President’s been shot!” it is on the stage of another theater in which Tad is viewing a swashbuckling play.

Why is it so wrong for Spielberg to avoid dramatizing the assassination? It’s already been done so many times. Griffith did it twice, in The Birth of A Nation and his own Abraham Lincoln; Redford did it fairly recently in The Conspirator… even Harold Ramis made fun of it in Bedazzled. I’m sure there are many more examples. With this film, Spielberg wanted to deconstruct what we already know about Lincoln and dramatize the things about him that weren’t as well-known to the casual public, which makes this arguably the greatest film that has ever been made about him.

(to be continued...)

Adam Zanzie said...

When Jared Harris first appears, it is obvious that this stern, bearded, cigar-chomping commander is Ulysses S. Grant, but the subtitle reads, ULYSSES S. GRANT.

I will consent that the onscreen labeling of Grant was superfluous. I’ll actually go one step further and suggest that Jared Harris was miscast in the role; I already knew before seeing the film that he had been cast as Grant, but once he came onscreen, I didn’t think he looked much like Grant at all. The costume is right, but not the face. To quote Tom Carson (who loved the film, despite being a longtime critic of Spielberg), “The day I believe he's Ulysses S. Grant is the day I bet on Ann Romney's horse to win the Preakness.”

Conversely, subtitles name the three Confederate peace commissioners, one after the other, even though we don’t need to know their names; we know they are the peace commissioners and that is enough.

Here is where I disagree. When Jackie Earle Haley came onscreen and was labeled, “Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens”, I immediately sat up and paid attention. Wouldn’t you think it’s important for the audience to know that one of the conspirators is the actual vice president of the Confederacy? Not many people these days would know who Alexander Stephens was, let alone what he looked like!

Later, when the congressmen gather for what is obviously the beginning of the debate, we see the words, THE HOUSE DEBATE BEGINS. When it is obvious that the vote is going to take place in a day or two, we cut to custodians setting things up in the empty House chamber, and John Williams’s momentous music cues us to what we know is going to take place, but still the subtitle tells us it is THE MORNING OF THE VOTE.

I did not think it was as obvious what these events were. Without the subtitles, we would have had no reason to believe that the movie wasn’t beginning in the middle of the debate. And since Williams’ music shows up in all of the House chamber scenes, I doubt it would have been enough to indicate what the vote sequence was. The subtitle, “The Morning of the Vote” should be thought of less as an insult to the audience’s intelligence and more as groundwork that is laid to build up suspense to the vote itself.

Hokahey said...

Adam - we usually agree on a lot of classic films, but I guess we don't agree on this one. Still, I appreciate your comments. In fact, before your comments, I was re-thinking my criticism of the lack of physical action. I just wish the political action had been more urgently paced. I had also re-thought the absence of the assassination depiction, and I agree that, in this film, it was not necessary or really a part of the film.

Glad we agree on Grant; also, the Lee glorification was unnecessary and out of place - enough of that in
Gettysburg
and Gods and Generals.

As for the subtitles, I think, somewhere, they could have laid down a bit of dialogue that would have identified Stephens as the VP. As for THE MORNING OF THE VOTE - I guess it was obvious to me and I felt enough suspense from the music and the gradual set-up of the scene.

As to the greatness of this film - one thing for sure, Daniel Day-Lewis's performance is certainly great.