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The State of the Race: Selling a True Hero in the Age of the Snark

Some days it’s a rough go, filtering life through the waves of chatter online. Much of the time it’s even worse than high school — it’s middle school.  In all the ways people can be disappointing they rise to that occasion online every day.  And so it is into this atmosphere of pointing and laughing, hipper than thou, too cool for school and fear of not being in the hep crowd that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is about to launch. Tough crowd out there, tough crowd. Much of the time I can roll with it. But in certain moments, like the launch of the Lincoln trailer, it makes me want to step up in front of the class, start writing names on the board and withholding recess from disruptive students.

Lincoln is a film about the guy who once said this:

Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names, liberty and tyranny. The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.”

It is to be directed by Steven Spielberg and written by the great Tony Kushner, adapted from the exceptional  book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals and it is about the best President the country has ever known, or certainly one of them.

And yet, the chatter on Twitter was all about things that don’t matter — the equivalent of watching Secretariat and commenting about how his balls bounce up and down during the race.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ voice was the topic over at Hollywood-Elsewhere but that was, I think, a legit concern because sometimes the reality isn’t really what people want; they want the illusion. Even if Lincoln spoke in a high pitched voice, history doesn’t want to remember him that way.  Me, the voice doesn’t bother me at all.   Spielberg made it clear in the Google chat afterwards that his goal was to do what Goodwin’s book did so well: to portray Lincoln the flesh and blood man, not Lincoln the seated marble statue we’ve immortalized. To do that, historical accuracy was necessary. You don’t do a movie about King George and not have him stutter. Ahem.

Slate Magazine asked Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer what he thought of Daniel Day-Lewis’ vocal impersonation:

“Uncanny, convincing, and historically right,” Holzer told me. How so? Holzer pointed specifically to “the combined Kentucky-Hoosier twang” and, again, “the surprisingly high-pitched voice.” After all, as Holzer reaffirmed, “Lincoln didn’t growl —- in fact some people said he whined!”

So what’s the problem with Day-Lewis sounding how Lincoln must have sounded? Perhaps it disrupts expectations, which is kind of counter-intuitive for a crowd that seems to not want cliches. Can we figure out what we want, please? Why do we want more what we’ve always been given? As in, I’ll have a Big Mac combo meal? Or are we brave enough to actually open our minds and contemplate something new?

It’s especially strange that Jeff Wells would be so adamant about it, considering he’s the one trying to push through the 48 frames per second idea, a break with tradition that was not well received by the snark crowd on Twitter. What’s the harm in trying to accept that Abe Lincoln wasn’t the way we all thought he was? He was funny and strange and spoke with more of a high-pitched voice than we might have imagined. So an actor does the research and tries to present a deeply studied, three dimensional portrait of the President. And what reaction do we get back? Can I get a Big Mac combo meal, please?

But moving away from the voice complaints for a minute, back on Twitter and in comment sections, the snarking crowd was irritated at how traditional it looked, beyond the freshness of Day-Lewis’ take.

They attacked the music because, you know, if there’s any composer that doesn’t know what he’s doing it’s John Williams. I suppose this crowd would have wanted Jonny Greenwood or the Chemical Brothers instead. They then compared it unfavorably to War Horse.  While War Horse was certainly worthy subject matter — horses that were used and killed by the hundreds of thousands during the war, it was not dense enough source material for a complete film. The book is meant as a dark tale of adventure and adversity for young male teens — not bad for that, but otherwise not a lot of meat on its bones.  By contrast, Lincoln couldn’t be richer source material nor could it have a more important writer attached to it. So why the grief? I understand snark. I understand the feeling that you don’t want to see something you were already expecting. But what I can’t relate to is not caring that a worthy film about Lincoln is about to come out. I don’t understand people who don’t appreciate Lincoln. To me, it’s a moment to be appreciative, admiring and respectful. But I get it. I do know why it would inspire snark. I am more irritated people don’t feel like rising above their need to feel cool, just this once.

As readers here will remember, I’d never give Spielberg a pass just because he’s Spielberg but I have to admit that I have a deeper admiration for him now after seeing him make the choice to do Lincoln. It’s an ambitious production, and a worthy cause. It’s the best time to remember what the President actually did at a time when our country was as divided, and much more violent, than it is now. It wasn’t easy to be the guy who finally did what had to be done. He pissed off a lot of people — and is still pissing them off hundreds of years later. But ultimately, America doesn’t have many unequivocal moments and that was one of them. Sure, the South then went and imposed such laws as to limit the rights of black citizens, a practice that went on for many more decades after that, but Lincoln and his comrades decided to no longer live with the hypocrisy of having built a nation on the principle that all men are created equal and then enslaved human beings to serve as free labor — that labor helped to build this country. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the slaves who helped create this country, warts and all.

So I would hope for some enthusiasm, some patriotism, some kind of excitement from my fellow Americans that this story was about to be retold at a time when we really need to hear it told again. But what I get is an empty bottle, a snark fest, which serves no purpose at all except to broadcast how cynical, jaded and deadened we’ve all become.

2012 is already becoming of the better years for American film and filmmakers. A dazzling array of talent that began with Benh Zeitlin’s Beast of the Southern Wild, and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Then two superhero movies, The Dark Knight Rises and the Avengers, before the festival season delivered Ben Affleck’s Argo, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Still to come from the Americans, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Gus Van Sant’s The Promised Land, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. This year should help re-invigorate the somewhat sagging enthusiasm for homegrown product.

The Academy has laid out the new dates:

Friday, November 30, 2012: Official Screen Credits due
Saturday, December 1, 2012: Governors Awards presentation
Monday, December 17, 2012: Nominations voting begins
Thursday, January 3, 2013: Nominations voting ends 5 p.m. PT
Thursday, January 10, 2013: Nominations announced 5:30 a.m. PT, Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater
Monday, February 4, 2013: Nominees Luncheon
Friday, February 8, 2013: Final voting begins
Saturday, February 9, 2013: Scientific and Technical Awards presentation
Tuesday, February 19, 2013: Final voting ends 5 p.m. PT
Sunday, February 24, 2013: 85th Academy Awards presentation

There are 18 days to think about nominees, and 11 days to vote on the winners. Here is what Pete Hammond said about it:

Despite the increased time-crunch to see movies pre-nominations, The Academy is to be congratulated for finding a way to extend the period between their nominations and final ballots being due by two full weeks.

It is maybe a good idea for them to extend the time but really, who are we kidding. In the past few years since they changed the date, Oscar mostly falls in line with the DGA anyway. So, it won’t really matter particularly since the winner will have been chosen already, long before in fact, in the case of The Artist, The King’s Speech for sure. Therefore, what is the point, really, or giving them more time to decide what they’ve already long since decided? They pick their team, the industry does, and they stick with it, all the way down the line.

Of course, there can sometimes be upsets here or there — like the SAG ensemble could go a different way. But generally speaking, there isn’t enough time for rumination like there used to be so there isn’t a lot of variety in the winners. One domino goes and the rest follow suit.

You might be wondering, though, which precursor is matches up with the Academy most often. I was curious, after Silver Linings Playbook won in Toronto, to see how often the People’s Choice from TIFF goes on to win the Oscar. By my tracking, the DGA still rules. To that end, our Best Picture race usually boils down to our Best Director race and our Best Director race starts and ends with the DGA.

Next in line, weirdly enough, are the Golden Globes, taking into account winners in both the drama and the comedy category. Since TIFF’s People’s Choice only goes back to 1979, that’s how far I went back with the others. The Critics Choice would probably rival both the Globes and the DGA but it hasn’t been around as long.

In the end, I’m on the hunt for our director. He or she shall be lifted aloft in the coliseum in celebratory fashion, confident in the knowledge that whomever drives that chariot will lead our race for Best Picture. Will it one from among the long-overlooked brilliant American trio of Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, or David O. Russell? Will it be an actor turned director who win in the great tradition of actors turned directors — Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson — with Ben Affleck leading? Or will it go to someone who has already won before, Tom Hooper, Steven Spielberg or Kathryn Bigelow?

Hold on to your butts, Oscar watchers. It’s going to be a fast couple of months.