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The Audacity of a Film About Ideas: the Case for Lincoln


“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” — Abraham Lincoln

I was ten years old when Jaws was released in theaters. It’s hard to believe that was 37 years ago. Director David Fincher calls that moment in time the “Summer of the Shark” and indeed it was. In California there was life before Jaws and life after Jaws. Even though great whites weren’t really so much of a threat, and even though Jaws took place on Amity Island (“it’s only an island if you look at it from the water”), the ocean that we’d plunged in for much of our young lives was no longer a safe place to be — it still isn’t.

Tight cotton pants, halter tops, shag haircuts, Bonne Bell lip gloss — the 1970s in Southern California never saw anything like Steven Spielberg. I don’t remember the first time I saw Jaws but I remember loving it so much that I went back to see it fourteen times, waiting in line sometimes for two hours, paying for a ticket. We liked it so much that my mom would drop us off there and we’d watch it all day long in the summertime. It wasn’t just a thrilling film about a shark attacking people in the summer — it was a character study of three distinct types of people banding together to find him for three but to catch him and kill him for ten.

Steven Spielberg changed the way we see movies, pay for them, make them and consume them. That seismic shift was almost accidental — Jaws’ production woes were the stuff of legends. Richard Dreyfus trying to distance himself from the film indicates that many of them believed Jaws would flop. Jaws’ success, though, wasn’t in its box office take — this is the thing that’s easy to miss about Spielberg’s enduring influence on modern American cinema. True, if you are inclined towards size you will always look at bigger as being better. Spielberg would have no trouble generating blockbusters after Jaws. But what keeps his cinema alive is his enthusiasm for his subject, and endless curiosity — something unmatched by most of his peers.

Jaws is about a shark. But it is also about Amity island. It is about chum. It is about a rich kid on a floating asylum. It is about rubes who think they know more than Hooper. It is about a power hungry mayor (of Shark City) who wants to keep the beaches open. It’s about a chief of police who sticks by the rules because he doesn’t yet know, nor care, about the “way of the island.” Jaws is about a guy who does the right thing no matter what the eventual cost.

E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark are also about a character who sacrifices what he wants most in order to do the right thing. Perhaps it seems silly to think of it like that, but when you drill down into those stories that’s what you see. The movie that stands out most among his early films, the one which doesn’t focus on doing the right thing, is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In that film, the main character is compelled to follow his passion and leave his family behind. It is a film that would never be made today.  Fathers don’t leave their families now and remain “sympathetic.” But that was the ’70s. Back then, audiences weren’t so quick to judge.

After that, things got a little murky for Spielberg. He seemed to be divided in his heart of the kinds of films he wanted to make. Although the easy way to think about it is to say he wanted “to be taken seriously.” But I think that is not only a cynical way of looking at a complicated man but it misses the why of it.

Spielberg is one of those people who devours subjects that spark his curiosity. He dives into moments in history, studying every tiny detail and wanting to share that enthusiasm with audiences. His audience, though, never really wanted that from him. They never wanted him to change. They want Martin Scorsese to always make Goodfellas, and they want Fincher to always make Fight Club, Tarantino to always make Pulp Fiction, Woody Allen to always make Annie Hall and no one wanted to let go of Spielberg and the blockbuster. It was too lucrative, audiences loved it too much. But Spielberg has chafed a little bit against the manchild his fans needed him to be and the seasoned vet who wanted to try telling different stories.

In the case of Lincoln, he got so deep down that rabbit hole he couldn’t let go of the president. He even found himself forming an extraordinary bond with Daniel Day-Lewis because it was the kind of performance that erases the boundaries between real and imaginary. Many Americans have made a special effort to do what they never do anymore: drive to the multiplex and buy a ticket. So many love the film, in fact, that it will be a cakewalk getting them to watch the Oscars this year. And yet, where the Greek chorus whispers and chuckles, they still see the kid with the baseball cap forever changing the future of Hollywood with his nasty blockbusters. He can’t have both. He’ll never be great AND that a visual effects pusher.

No other mainstream white Hollywood director has tried harder to blend the African American voice into his films like Spielberg has. No one wanted him to go down that road either. The Color Purple, for instance, a film that featured an all-black cast, was mostly shunned by the Academy after rumblings that Spielberg really had no business making a film about black characters. No other film with an all-black cast would ever make it into the Best Picture race until 2009’s Precious. This is how oppression works, you see. If enough people complain, the status quo remains intact. The same thing, or thereabouts, happened when Spielberg made Amistad, a film about slavery — one that showed the brutality of it.

Everyone in Hollywood knew Spielberg wanted to make Lincoln ten years ago. He’d wanted to make Lincoln the minute he heard Doris Kearns Goodwin was going to write the biography. Goodwin is a presidential historian with a gift for storytelling, took a decade to write her opus, a book many Lincoln enthusiasts devoured. Tony Kushner was given the daunting task of adapting it. It was a monster script, at one point 300 pages. Many directors will talk about the Lincoln screenplay and the film that would maybe never get made. Somehow, though, everything came together and, by god, that movie got made. It chose to focus on a very specific point in Lincoln’s presidency — evidence of a shrewd politician working the system to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t the popular thing. President Obama is facing something similar right now with the NRA, guns and the Constitution.

The Oscar bloggers are down on Lincoln. It can’t win, they say. It’s too boring. People have begrudging respect for it. They don’t love it. No one really even likes it. The HFPA didn’t like it. The Critics Choice, New York Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics nor Southeastern Film Critics. The Los Angeles Film Critics shut it out completely. They have “issues” with the ending because everyone thinks it should have ended ten minutes before it did. But those people, to my mind, are missing why Spielberg chose to include those final minutes. Maybe you have to be a President Lincoln fan to really get why. Lincoln’s sudden death was a jarring thing to America then, and when you watch the film you see what a jarring thing it is — it interrupts the story, the memory, the legacy — that’s what crazy people with guns can do. You can’t tell Lincoln’s story without telling that story — without pointing out what an ordinary citizen was willing to do to protect white rights. Killing the president shows just what an uphill battle Lincoln faced with ending slavery in America.

Finishing the film on Lincoln’s inaugural throws the ball back in our court. The story of the 13th Amendment and the abolishment of slavery reminds us, emphatically, that the work is far from over. You don’t even have to look very far — only at the film industry, public education, health care, gun violence, and even the Oscar race to see how much farther we have to go.  The film isn’t about the 13th Amendment; the film is about the people who fought so hard against it and about how close we came to not ending slavery for all time.

Lincoln is a subtle, quiet, subdued, meditative masterpiece. What drives it are the performances, first and foremost. The best actors in Hollywood fill even the smallest parts, familiar faces even if their names aren’t. The audacity of casting Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln at a time when fanboys control the box office and casting decisions of major studios. “She was miscast,” one early voice said. “They should have cast Reese Witherspoon,” another said. Perhaps you would have had to live a few more decades before you can appreciate just how great Field is in this part. She carries all of Mary’s madness, passion and love for her husband in every word that comes out of her mouth. The opening scene of the two of them has Mary looking at her husband in the mirror, three layers deep, as he tells her of his dream. Lincoln, in fact, had been haunted by death for most of his life and that included his dreams. A formidable woman, Field captures Mary’s buried ambition as she stands up to Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Mary was eventually put in a mental hospital by her son, so Field plays her with madness always just seconds away from consuming her completely.

While Lincoln represents just a small part of the book Team of Rivals, Kushner has filled the film with tiny details about who Lincoln was. He was the president who drove his staff crazy by letting his children run about the White House unchecked. This is illustrated beautifully in the scene with Tad driving a carriage through the hallway and a voice shouting behind him, “Don’t encourage him!” Lincoln was kind towards animals and children and couldn’t bear to scold his own.

Lincoln is a film about ideas. If you don’t stop to pay attention to the tiny details in Lincoln, you will never be moved by it. It is a meditative procedural that celebrates the greatest president the US ever had, and how minds were ever so slightly cranked open. The abolitionists pressured Lincoln to make slavery illegal but Lincoln himself evolved while in office from someone who was mildly against slavery to someone completely opposed to it.

But to care about Lincoln, to be moved it is to ultimately care about those shifting ideas, what they meant then and what they mean now. If the evolution of African Americans in this country isn’t something you think about or care about, the origins of freedom aren’t going to matter to you.

There is a reason why prime time television in America is mostly white (such is not the case in England, it’s worth noting). Racism in America doesn’t just mean outright hatred as we saw during the election — it is more subtle than that. It is allegiance to the stories that only matter to the white narrative. I was especially horrified to find so many women critics “not liking” Lincoln either. I am baffled by my sex as much over this as I am over their interest in 50 Shades of Grey.

The Oscar race, though, is about the anonymous passionate vote. It isn’t about doing what you SHOULD do, it’s about doing what you WANT to do. I have been at this for 14 years and believe me, there is no stemming the tide. There is no ad or essay that can make people do what they don’t want to do. Hell, if that were the case someone would have cancelled The Bachelor by now.

Lincoln may have to end the year as the most nominated film that never won. It will join the ranks of those films with 12 that never did win Best Picture, like A Streetcar Named Desire, and Reds. I often wonder what the Oscar race would look like if films were really rewarded on high achievement and not on personal passion. I wonder if the word “best” could still be used with a straight face. I have spent 14 years watching and studying the Oscar race and I know that most of the time the best films don’t win. So much goes into the vote that has nothing to do with a film’s worth: resentments, associations, baggage, likability, a desire to stand apart from the consensus. In the end, the most votes across the board decide.

But all of that aside, all of the reasons why Lincoln can’t and won’t win aside, there is something unforgettable about this odd, talky movie that took so long to make and is barreling its way, astonishingly, towards $200 million. It is the best film of 2012, with Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour giving it some serious heat. Why Lincoln wins out, though, is that it is about the film, yes. But it is also about our country, about the future and the past. It’s about the horrible things we’ve done, the inexcusable things we are still doing, and a voice from the past to make us change.

Lincoln wins out because it has no weak link. Kushner’s script is full of dense vitality, even if you don’t catch it all the first time through. Daniel Day-Lewis disappears into Lincoln, creates a half-irritating voice that makes us stop and pay attention to the man and forget the man we thought we knew. The supporting cast, starting with Tommy Lee Jones but also Sally Field, James Spader, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Gloria Reuben, Jackie Earle Haley, Joseph Gordon Levitt — an ensemble that defines what the craft of acting looks like. And finally, the starman himself, Mr. Spielberg, fighting every urge to ruin this beautifully delicate story with overbearing direction has pulled out the stops with the kind of shot setups I haven’t seen in any of his films since Jaws, or Schindler’s List. The slippers in the doorway, the foggy dream sequence, the frothy light through the curtain, the painterly wide shots of Congress — they took my breath away.

I guess, in the end, what makes Lincoln so great is the same thing that made Jaws great. Spielberg thinks young. He rescued me when I couldn’t bear to face another day of a hard childhood. He rescued me when I couldn’t make my life what I wanted it to be. And he’s rescuing me now when I thought the very notion of a film about ideas was gone. I have grown up Spielberg. Every thumbprint in his films, good ones and bad ones, has a place in my own DNA. If this is to be his last moment in the spotlight, his last chance to be given a statue for his work, let me be the first one to say that it was well earned, both in earnest ambition and in final execution. Well earned.

Growing up Spielberg means you know everything about his beginnings — the quirky outsider Jew boy who started making movies with a Super-8 camera, a product of divorce, a gaping need for a father figure, a lifelong devotion to female figures, the boy wonder in a baseball cap haunting the backlots of movie studios. It was my curse to be one of those Spielberg wannabes. Girls just didn’t think that way. That was a guy thing. It still is. Sure, I fumbled towards film school like everyone else. Failed, like most everyone else. Became a writer about film, like everyone else.

Buried inside of me, though, there is still the young girl who remembers going to sleep at night thinking, “someday I’m going to marry Steven Spielberg,” and then waking up a few years later and thinking, “someday I’m going to BE Steven Spielberg.” Well, needless to say, neither of those things ever happened.

We have both left behind the suburban daydreams of escaping our mundane lives. He has gone on to achieve and I have been there to watch. His achievements will always come with an asterisk. And this year that asterisk will explain in a footnote why Lincoln didn’t win Best Picture. And none of those reasons will have been good enough.

His characters live inside me still — Brody, Hooper and Quint, Indy and Marion, Eliot and E.T., Oskar Schindler, and, now, Abraham Lincoln. I have been there, where the wild things are, to catch his falling stars — each one of them alive with so much brilliant light I can still see them when I close my eyes. And I really can’t see anything else.