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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell's Magic Blanket Rom-Com

“I’m not into making or watching that kind of movie anymore.” That’s what David O. Russell has to say about his debut feature, the Sundance-winning “feel-bad” comedy about incest Spanking the Monkey, a picture that excels in making the audience uncomfortable and, as Russell puts it, shows how awful human beings can be to each other. A fine breakthrough, the gross and smothering sensations of Spanking the Monkey were something from which the director fled as soon as he could, even while remaining fixed on dysfunctional families and tormented individuals: the screwball sex comedy Flirting With Disaster, wherein Ben Stiller flees one set of neurotic parents to end up with another; the manic comic assault of I Heart Huckabees as Jason Schwartzman is stuck between opposing but overlapping philosophical world views of the transcendently positive and the dreary and existential negative; and the uphill battles of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale as Lowell, Massachusetts boxing brothers in The Fighter, caught in a maze of images created by media and family relationships. All of these other stories go down easy and fulfilling like a good meal, and instead of Monkey’s med student (Jeremy Davies) escaping from home and walking into an unknowable future, no doubt damaged by the predicament of his origins and circumstances, Russell has since desired his heroes to “become the blanket,” to quote “existential detective” Dr. Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) in Huckabees, where contradictions are transcended and rivalries reconciled.  Not a stranger to mental illness and familial distress in his personal life, Russell loves happy endings relieving his characters’ dysfunctions and maladjustments, playing God as he writes with his camera, itself as overbearing, invasive, judging, tyrannical, and ultimately merciful as the deities that he, a student of comparative religions with Dr. Robert Thurman of Columbia, is familiar with.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

“The Fighter” and the Truculent Camera Eye of David O. Russell

(Originally written in January 2011, reposted November 2012) 

A doozy of an inspirational populist crowd pleaser with big performances, David O. Russell’s The Fighter could be catalogued as unabashed awards-season bait. It seems an uncomplicated enough, family-oriented blue collar picture (with some f-words thrown in) that will have audiences cheering for a stepping stone boxer and his fight to the welterweight championship, and leaving with their expectations more than satisfied. This is a far cry from the quirky and philosophical I Heart Huckabees (2004), Russell's divisive previous effort that could only find a kind of audience that was as intellectually precocious as its subject matter. The Fighter is about the practicalities of a career path coupled with an aggression that is more private than public, and Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is the 31-year-old prodigal son striving to succeed on the road of pugnacious accomplishment. He had great promise, but is running out of time. His peak boxing years almost out of his grasp, he fears becoming a disappointment. He lives in the shadow of failure, as his older half-brother, Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) tries to relive the past in Mickey, while hiding from the reality of a future he threw away in favor of crack addiction. Russell is no stranger to making nakedly personal films about family (his debut was the wildly uncomfortable incest comedy Spanking the Monkey), but even though The Fighter is an acquired project, the first in which he had no (credited) hand in the screenplay, it comes from the heart, landing its punches obliquely this time.

Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) dominated by images of himself.

Russell was himself a late bloomer in the indie movie movement (he was 36 when Spanking the Monkey was released in 1994, with some short film work behind him), and still has yet to fulfill his early promise. The 1999 Gulf War heist drama Three Kings was a moderate success, marred by stories of on-set fighting between Russell and star George Clooney, in addition to the grumblings of writer John Ridley, whose treatment was appropriated by the director. I Heart Huckabees was a box office failure.  His next film Nailed couldn’t get finished. Russell is marked with one of the most difficult reputations in Hollywood, and he’s only getting older. Mulling over The Fighter, the film is a sweeping gesture by a talented filmmaker, examining the nature of his own profession (filmed images), who feels he’s running out of time. Like Mickey and Dickie, he’s at odds with the camera, struggling to control images and ease the existential and familial shit that plagues him. A film set, a boxing ring, a household – it’s all wrought with conflict and invasive violence.

Home movies: The Fighter

The Fighter may be viewed as a struggling director's opportunity to "sell out," but rather Russell's acquisition of the material may have been a kind of gift in a time of need. After the commercial failure of Huckabees, Russell made plans to satirize the dire state of the United States healthcare system. Titled Nailed, the project appears to be an ambitious, Strangelove-like ensemble indicting the entire political/economic apparatus, the story being about a woman accidentally shot in the head with a nail gun and who subsequently cannot find proper medical coverage; the effects of the accident lead her to be overpowered by sexual desires, which are taken advantage of by an up and coming politician. Nailed would have been perfectly timed for a release after the election of Barack Obama and the healthcare debates that followed, but production was shut down three times, actors quit (e.g. James Caan, after one of those Russell squabbles), and financing failed to be secured for completion. Russell's behavior on the set did little to aid his reputation as a difficult administrator, and the filmmaker found years of work and millions of dollars leading to an unfinished movie that no one would touch. He was out of work, and at over 50 years old without a new release in five years, also running out of time.

Early promise: David O. Russell uses the actual footage of Eklund vs. Leonard
Enter Darren Aronofsky, another maverick visionary whom despite any of his own set-backs (the troubled production history and release of his only big studio film, The Fountain), had succeeded in cementing a consistently provocative body of work with Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and then most successfully The Wrestler. Aronofsky's follow-up to The Wrestler was to be The Fighter, perhaps a kind of glass-half-full companion to the downbeat Mickey Rourke starrer. In an all-too-convenient swap of material, Aronofsky decided to pursue another – and more fitting – companion piece to The Wrestler that he has conceived long before, moving out of the ring and onto the ballerina stage with Black Swan. Remaining as a credited executive producer, Aronofsky passed The Fighter on to the out-of-work Russell.
Perhaps Aronofsky and the film's star and chief coordinator, Wahlberg (who had worked with Russell twice before), saw this as a perfect fit for Russell. Whereas many young filmmakers found their footing in their 20s fresh out of film school, Russell didn't release a feature film until he was 36, 1994's indie comedy Spanking the Monkey, which won him a prize at Sundance. After the delightful low-budget screwball farce Flirting with Disaster, he moved his capital towards a big budget studio endeavor at Warner Bros., 1999's Gulf War amalgamation of action, politics, and comedy, Three Kings, starring George Clooney, Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze as four 1991 Iraq War soldiers who come across some of Saddam Hussein's stashed gold and plot to heist it out of the country. Off the bat, Russell's participation was a forceful and single-focused one, as he disallowed any participation from the original screenwriter, John Ridley, to the extent that he claims never to have read Ridley's original script so as to not disrupt his own original ideas. Worse than the predictable Writers Guild tiffs involving who gets what credit was Russell's chaotic and despotic directorial methods, one of obstinate hard-edged aggression to both crew members and celebrated movie stars like Clooney. Seen by some as verbally abusive, furious in the stabilization of his vision, he eventually came to blows on the set with Clooney in a much-publicized confrontation during the final phases of production, the actor saying "life's too short" when asked if he'd ever work with Russell again.

God's Eye View on ESPN

Adding to Russell's reputation were the spats he had with actress Lily Tomlin during I Heart Huckabees' shooting, which I’d venture have been seen on YouTube more than the film itself was viewed in theaters and on DVD. Ecumenical camaraderie between the director and his cast/crew are elements not to be heard of on a Russell set, as the filmmaker was in the constant position of a poised fighter in a defensive position, lashing out aggressively when his choices were criticized. News then followed from the set of Nailed, where James Caan quit after Russell would not allow the actor to make the gurgling sounds of choking on a cookie a specific way. Caan, himself an actor with a pugnacious reputation, refused to vocalize as his character died – the way Russell directed him to do it – stating that in reality a choking victim would be unable to make any sound. That simple conflict over "sound or no sound" led to Caan "resigning,” and eventually the movie shut down entirely. Russell is talented, but he's a fighter, and not in any kind of flowery idealistic sense of the struggling artist; he's literally a director who seems to foster animosity on his sets, even to the detriment of his career going anywhere.
Russell's camera, like Dickie's fist, is an aggressor.

This is essentially speculative. But knowing these stories about David O. Russell and the pickle of his career, in addition to the promise of his early prospects, gives The Fighter's opening minutes an aura of rebellious bliss that beautifully fits Russell's clenched-fist soul. The intro to this film has the soulful grunge of The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now" beating along with Mickey Ward's training with Dickie, as the brothers' journey on the gilded road of boxing legend is captured by a documentary film crew. The in-your-face lyrics denoting a temperament of ferocious self affirmation attains its crescendo as the camera dollies back from Mickey at an accelerated speed, conveying a sense of abundant and physical splendor. The high altitude of movement and character we're seeing during these opening credits and introductions as Mickey's silently punching the air and Dickie's flinging his own self forth with his endlessly brash talking, seems a kind of statement on Russell's own part, embracing the trajectory of his reputation. The 1990s indie enthusiasm for the younger Russell is in synch with the lyrics.  Of course, in the context of The Fighter the song is directly linked to Dickie's stasis and prospects, as the man who in the 1970s knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, and then became a crack addict. He will live out the past through his younger brother Mickey, the great new pride of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Melissa Leo as the latest of David O. Russell's colorful and overbearing mothers.

But these forceful, self-destructive personalities fit Russell’s mold, as the director’s embarking on his own rebirth here. It also cleanly fits onto a slate of themes explored in previous Russell pictures, particularly regarding a young man's relationship to his family and teachers, which at times can be a little too close (the mother/son incest of Spanking the Monkey), as he struggles to break free from the schematic rules laid out before him to become his own man (Jason Schwartzman's self-realization between Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin's 'Existential Detectives' and Isabelle Huppert's nihilist in I Heart Huckabees). The impositions of self definition here are, yes, family and corporate structures of capital (determining who Mickey fights, often against his own self interest), but also the televisual images of film and documentaries, which are as difficult to evade in the process of self definition as a family's own impositions.
On HBO: Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and brother Dickie, with two very different relationships to the camera.

The Fighter begins in 1993, the year that Russell's career as a feature filmmaker began, the locale being Lowell, Massachusetts, identified as one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution in America, the poverty and squalor in the tough community projecting again this resonance of empty dreams and sapped promises from a wellspring that once was prosperous. Meanwhile, the people in this world are surrounded by, and in essence defined by, the surrounding camera lenses. Given their ubiquity, the citizens of this neighborhood cannot avoid responding to such impositions; consequently, you have Mickey who wants to exist independently of the image, and Dickie who is mugging for it. Both of them are photographed by a HBO documentary crew in the film’s opening moments. Mickey is stand-offish, while Dickie cannot stop talking about his brother – which is essentially just another way for him to talk about himself. What we have then is a bridge in The Fighter that connects the provincial birthplace of the Industrial Age to the Information Age, the early nineties being the time when MTV began assigning "reality" to television with The Real World. The Fighter is life as film, on film, all the time, and whether the lens belongs to HBO or ESPN or belongs to Russell's viewfinder, the camera is always running and is nearly impossible to hide from.

The incredible demands the videoscopic world makes on Mickey and Dickie is demonstrated early on as Mickey checks into Atlantic City to make his "comeback," the fight we've seen him training for during the opening segments. As his family settles in, they're informed that Mickey's opponent is ill and won't be able to fight – but there is a replacement. The proposition is impractical for Mickey, but he won't get paid a dime unless there’s a fight. ESPN is calling the shots, and if Mickey wants to make any kind of economic headway on the last few months of activity, he has no choice.

Reunited with Sugar Ray: The Fighter

This is enthusiastically endorsed by Dickie, who pronounces that Mickey is ready to do anything and take on any comers. Mickey understands the flip side: his opponent is much bigger than him, a former middle-weight who outweighs Mickey by nearly 20 pounds. He's told that the replacement just got out of prison, so "he's probably out of practice." Of course, he's not, and the 20 extra pounds are not flab but toned muscle. Mickey gets his ass handed to him, and goes back to Lowell disappointed. The celebratory hype of a new pride for his hometown amounts to the fear of being nothing more than a disappointment in his failed brother's shadow. Of course, making it worse is how everything is on tape and film, with color commentators (including Sugar Ray Leonard) weighing in.

The confusion of history's integrity becomes a central issue then in The Fighter, as life is less lived as a ceaseless progression of "present" moments than it is a simulation of reality and the past, performed, rewound, and rebroadcast. Dickie's grand achievement in youth, knocking down Sugar Ray, is not something restaged by Russell, but the actual footage from 1978 is intercut into The Fighter, confusing the directorial vantage of history the movie is giving us, with reality and theatrical simulation, all melting together. Dickie is eager to re-enact this glory through Mickey, and so is very "actorly," over-the-top in his appeals for attention to the camera eye. Mickey, because he can perceive this so acutely in his brother, is skeptical of the image, as he is increasingly skeptical of the expectations of his family. He's subdued, quiet, and passive in front of those same lenses.

There has been an appropriate amount of award speculation for Christian Bale's magnificent channeling of Dickie Eklund, as the actor quite amazingly without hesitation throws himself – perhaps to the detriment of physical and mental health – into the portrayal of Dickie. This is Bale's much-noted practice as an actor, who is tireless in his intense research and ability to remain in character throughout production (the intensity became infamous during his recorded off-camera tirades as Terminator: Salvation was being filmed: "Be fucking professional!" – denoting a kind of aggressive dedication that figures into how Bale got along so well with similar psychological types like David O. Russell and Michael Mann). Christian Bale lost a lot of weight to play Dickie, transforming his Batman physique to something wiry, jittery, and unhinging. The opening scene proclaims Bale's work loudly as "performance as spectacle," the same way many viewed Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, or Mo'Nique in Precious. It's a transcendent portrayal that feels dangerous to the audience as it may have been dangerous for the performer. As such, it is exhilarating.

As Mickey, Wahlberg will not be given nearly as many accolades for his restrained, but no less remarkable, characterization. For example, Roger Ebert notes, "The weakness of the film is the weakness of the leading role." Wahlberg's Mickey is not "sufficiently analytical," according to Ebert, and seems to be constructed with rougher edges than the more conventionally developed over-powering characterizations we see in Bale's Dickie, or Melissa Leo's similarly marvelous rendering of the boys' manager/mother. "Mickey Ward has less personality than the hero of any boxing movie I can remember," Ebert says, and the gist of his criticism is technically correct, but the great critic has himself not sufficiently analyzed the dynamics of Wahlberg's withdrawn approach in the context of a movie that is less about boxing and even family than it is about how individuals perform – and are expected to perform – for cameras.

Indeed, one of Russell's techniques here was to use the cameras that were actually used by ESPN in the early 1990s to capture a particular kind of period visual sense. Home videos, antiquated news video, live sports broadcasts, HBO documentary video-making, and of course the "film" The Fighter all commingle to the extent that in many places in the picture, we are not sure from what camera we are viewing things: is this ESPN's camera? HBO's? Or is this the omniscient/invisible eye of David O. Russell and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema? As in our own chaotic videoscopic Information Age, the cutting lines between the officially documented and the poetically private are blurred.

The possible annoyance of this is felt in Mickey Ward as he takes a local bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams), on a date to an art-house cinema. The choice is very surprising: Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque, an arty endeavor set during the Spanish Civil War that no blue collar guy from Lowell would ever dream of showing to his date. As Mickey and Charlene walk up to the theater, we overhear a smarmy, educated young man say loudly to his cinephile companions, "The cinematography is supposed to be gorgeous!", a lovely and self-deprecating comic insertion by Russell, who's a film lover's filmmaker. Hearing the cinephile, Mickey frowns.

Not really giving a shit about the "gorgeous cinematography": Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter go see Belle Epoque.

It's not just that Mickey Ward – to say nothing of his date – wouldn't give a shit about the photographic virtues of a movie (Charlene notes that he fell asleep during the movie). But if we look at this deliberately over photographed/videographed/cinematographed movie The Fighter in a poetic way beyond its concrete, blue-collar movie-lover's crowd-pleasing satisfactions, we can make interpretations regarding the overabundance of moving images, and how they have power over us and, in essence, define us; the actual circumstances of a "thing in itself" may be manipulated, cut, and lit in a fashion that communicates something distinct from the nuanced truism of a given situation or individual. The "gorgeous cinematography" of the camera eye haunts Mickey, and he doesn't trust it.

That's how Wahlberg's performance functions in the context of The Fighter, and makes it distinct from Bale's. Bale/Dickie is eager to be the over-the-top ham actor; it's a golden marriage of character and performer. Just as appropriate is Wahlberg to Mickey's simplicity and distance. Mickey does not want to embrace the usual grand-standing postures of the sports hero, whether it's Rocky Balboa, Jake LaMotta, or Muhammad Ali – all of whom had actors play them to Academy Award nominations or wins (so too will be the case with Bale, or the similarly camera ready personalities displayed by Melissa Leo or Amy Adams). Mickey does not want to go through the hackneyed struggles on a path of glory; he's a straight-edged man who feels like he's running out of time and understands the best place for him to be is away from the kinds of conflict that would, in a boxing movie, compel the performer to act histrionically. He wants to be free from the impositions of family and image, and just wants to succeed while he is physically able. We can perceive the tragedy of Dickie Eklund in the way he too-willingly embraces the power of images. In prison, he greets the HBO production about his life like a movie star at his own premiere, proud that he will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

The scene where we watch the HBO documentary along with Dickie, Mickey, Mom, and all quarters of the family, is then tremendously significant. Mickey's bitter ex-wife tells him that she's forcing their son to watch the documentary, even after Mickey begs her to turn it off. "I want him to see who his uncle really is," she responds. Mickey and Dickie's mother is changed by what she's watching, wondering why "they" are doing this to her son, as the images make her see Dickie in a way she has been resistant to acknowledge. "It's the way he is, mom," Mickey tells her, "But you refuse to see it." Images assuage us and play into our inherited schema. But in the same way that Shakespeare often will have his characters over-hear themselves, and so in that process of self-observation, be open to change, Dickie's attitude changes during the HBO screening in prison. He sees his life, his own self, and understands in his currently sober state of mind that his son will be watching this in addition to everyone else close to him. He is disgusted. He demands the show be turned off, so shortly after esteeming it with enthusiasm: "That's my fucking life!" he cries to the fellow inmates, who seem to be captivated by what they're watching as entertainment.

Of course, Russell is in the business of making images and he understands their power, and here he's making his first movie about real people and actual events, the challenge being to make a conscious examination that is richer than hollow and hackneyed biopics. The presentation of the Dickie Eklund documentary is the turning point in The Fighter, where self-definitions are re-adjusted as the viewers (Dickie, Mickey, mom) begin to see themselves in the mash-up of moving pictures. Beyond passive viewing, they become activated through the process of self-identification. Russell wants to remind us that the process of film ingestion is capable of being psychologically intimate, dialectical, and transformative, beyond the escapist catharsis that it is manufactured as too often. This is demonstrated in the casting. One of the main characters, a local cop who trains Mickey whenever Dickie's absent, Mickey O'Keefe, plays himself, and the mannerisms of this non-actor conveys a certain authenticity to the material while also beautifully reminding us of the dynamics of true-life reconstruction and dramatization. The other faces in the film (for example, some of Mickey and Dickie's sisters – of which there are seven), feel like real faces pulled from the streets of Lowell, as opposed to actor faces. Actor faces are, after all, treated with a bit of contempt, as the sisters oppose Charlene because she's an "MTV girl," which is a symbolic way of saying that she's attractive and sexually nefarious – again playing into the videoscopic context of The Fighter, where contextual media/broadcasting tropes define individuals.

Mickey O'Keefe plays himself in The Fighter.

At this stage in the story, after Dickie has been paroled and Mickey has decided to take on new management, he has become a surprising success, earning an underdog's title shot and redefining himself as a welterweight phenomenon. Instead of opposition and enormous conflict involving Mickey between Dickie, his sisters, Charlene, the new managers, Mickey O'Keefe, the mother and father, and the media, there is an invigorating reconciliation as Mickey Ward accepts the conflict while also persisting in doing things his own way. He steadfastly refuses the camera, his family, his neighborhood, or his girlfriend to define him, while also making peace with them – as long as they make peace with each other. Dickie too, who seems to be on the verge of relapse after parole, walks to the crack den that has victimized him and instead of getting a fix, drops off the celebratory "Welcome Home" cake his family offered him, transcending the elements that have hitherto defined him, whether that be drug addiction, the family, and most significantly the demons and lost dreams of his past. He steps outside of the simulation and into the action of the present moment, in Mickey's corner, clean and sober.

The poetry of that reconciliation between the image and reality is fully realized when the end credits begin, as Russell bookends his film with the two shot of Mickey and Dickie talking to the camera, a reflection of the image that began The Fighter. Instead of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, it is the true-life Mickey and Dickie. This could be a moving true-life closure that we see in other biopics, but as we hear the two men thank the crew of The Fighter, a more meaningful thought is offered. These two men are out of the simulated fiction of a feature film where they are portrayed by movie stars and can exist in the real world as themselves, conscious of the camera eye, with its 'gorgeous cinematography,' a world where the truth of subject matter and history is inconsequential to the lensing of it. They are free from the prisons of "glorious moments" and are able to exist peacefully in time.

David O. Russell himself may have finally achieved his long-awaited TKO then with this picture, already on pace to be his most profitable and highly regarded work, and which has not been scathed in the least by on-set clashes or fist-fights. Far from a convenient hired gun project, The Fighter has Russell's fiery soul wired into it; though a boxing picture, there are seemingly very few minutes featuring professional bouts, most of the fights being outside of the ring or inside the mind. It would be nice to think that the contentious filmmaker, though there's still much fight left in him, has reached his own acceptance of permanent truculence, coupled with the structuralism of an artful performance: the poetry of aggression. Like Mickey Ward's title attainment in the late rounds of his own boxing career, maybe the Sundance darling has at last lived up to his promise.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Guiding Light: Lincoln as Spielberg's Other Extra-Terrestrial

“With his death,” writes Doris Kearns Goodwin at the conclusion of Team of Rivals,  “Abraham Lincoln had come to seem the embodiment of his own words – ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all’ – voiced in his second inaugural to lay out the visionary pathway to a reconstructed union.” Goodwin’s book is the main source for Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln, an almost “anti” biopic that evades showing the expected high notes in the Lincoln symphony, instead condensing its most storied of American subjects into a procedural set on a political chessboard.  A man who was “the embodiment of his own words,” this Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) shows how those words ascend and float beyond the grit of his terrestrial existence. The film asks what the specificity or legend of a lone individual means for the broad world, the title card “Lincoln” cutting to the opening images of whooping soldiers with raised bayonets to pierce flesh, their boots stamping on faces to drown them in the mud. Scores of dead are burdened on this name, which represents different things to different people, and remains to do so. In the microcosm of a few months, Lincoln seeks not to “reveal” the macrocosm of a human life or an age, but rather to understand how that life remains mysterious and unknowable, always malleable and moving, never fixed. Lincoln is the great “Uniter,” a curious seeker and seer whose challenge is to move through a labyrinth of swinging pendulums, his rare quality of empathy now part of the historical dialectic. He surrenders himself to the tide, to “the ages” which claim him.  Looking into his large black hat, out of which he grabs speeches containing deathless words that usurp plain biography, he could be said to be gazing into a great and mysterious abyss.  With that mystical quality along with his curiosity, compassion, and will to take the ills of a nation upon himself, Abraham Lincoln’s closest kin in Spielberg’s universe is E.T. Both characters heal divides between times, people, and places, the alien coming from outer space while Lincoln's extra terrestrial landscape is the cosmos of the mind and deep thought. These characters scratch themselves into our memory, bidding us to "be good" before departing.

The opening trailers in recent months immediately proposed the question of who Lincoln was, and whose Lincoln would Spielberg and Kushner portray? The high-pitched voice of Daniel Day-Lewis, so unlike the great English actor’s other commanding characters (Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher, John Procter, Hawkeye), came close to provoking some kind of controversy. Instead of the rock-steady Lincolns pervading popular consciousness and our Halls of Presidents, Lincoln here seemed to be shades of Walter Brennan or even, as lovable Spielberg hater Jeffrey Wells noted, Matthew Modine (though no one mentions Sam Waterston, whose similar high voice was part of the 1987 Gore Vidal-based Lincoln miniseries). It would have been the most wonderful of rejections if popular audiences turned down Spielberg’s Lincoln because of his voice (which historians tell us is probably accurate), a demonstration of what’s so important to the picture Spielberg has created. For as Abraham Lincoln sits and chats with some Union soldiers, they tell him that they were at Gettysburg and saw him at a cemetery dedication years before. “Could you hear me?” Lincoln asks them, regarding his speech. They hey couldn’t. But they know the words, and with some fumbling imperfections, they have it memorized. Lincoln listens as the soldiers, two black and two white, recite his words back to him.
Hearing himself: Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)
In the abstract, without seeing this scene but hearing about it, one could understandably dismiss it as eye-rolling Spielbergian bullshit, particularly when one of the black soldiers wraps up with the final lines ("government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth"). But the way Kushner has written the opening, and Spielberg with his longtime collaborators (like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and let's not forget composer John Williams) has executed it with his actors, reveals some key themes, setting a tone for where the next 140 minutes will take us. The approach is not to sentimentally congratulate the soldiers for their memorization or to show how Lincoln’s message affects them. Rather, the moment is about Lincoln hearing his words come back to him through other voices, and his understanding about how history and perception are running away with what he originally set to paper and orated. The authored document - much like Schindler's list of Jewish names, a grave at Arlington, or a mechanical robot programmed by scientists to love - comes to life.

Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), portrayed negatively in Birth of a Nation, now represents our present-day conscience in Lincoln.
The tempest of history is embodied in how the soldiers are talking over each other with varying temperaments. Of the two black soldiers, one is prudent and restrained, the other blunt and maybe too forthcoming about unequal pay. One is acting in tune with social niceties, the other is telling the truth. There’s a flow of oppositions: white soldiers and black soldiers, pretense and truth, North and South, Free and Slave. Kushner is interested in a historical dialectic of ideas moving forward through chaos, and the labyrinth through which progress moves is the battlefield of language. The film is full of oratory which is deliberately theatrical, as characters speak knowing that what they say matters, and historical record will become a kind of script or play, the domain of politics a stage on which everyone is acting. And indeed, to be too forthcoming or honest like abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the voice to our modern-day sensibilities, is politically treacherous. The film is about the passing and ratification of an abstraction to be printed as a piece of paper, the 13th Amendment, which will legally abolish slavery. That paper holds in it Lincoln’s hopes for a new and healed nation, and of realized “self-evident” truths about our nature. Stevens will have to compromise his values to pass it. The film is stressing the problematic relationship between Historical Text and Reality.

The opening shot of The Godfather. Spielberg introduces Lincoln in a similar fashion, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's choices at times reminded me of "Prince of Darkness" Gordon Willis' work on the Corleone trilogy.
The opening moments of Lincoln also remind me of another story about theatricality alongside backroom dealings and conspiratorial mazes in the reflective mirror hallways of history, where the deep ocean of dark contrasts to the few sharp rays of light. As the camera slowly pulls back from the soldiers talking, and our first glimpse of Lincoln is the back of his head in the foreground, how can one not think about the introduction to The Godfather? Like The Godfather, Lincoln introduces its hero by showing the rear of a patriarch’s head. He is listening, wavering through decisions, and thinking through the shadows, the “swamps” on the way “true north.” Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography even seems to be very much modeled on Gordon Willis’ pallet for The Godfather trilogy, the supporting players in 1860s’ politics functionally similar to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo’s Corleone adversaries and collaborators. Isn't David Strathairn’s William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, a consigliore not unlike Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen? The wry and wily glutton W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), who works tirelessly with some accomplices (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes) to secure votes from lame duck congressmen, a Clemenza? Old school Francis Breston Blair Sr. (Hal Halbrook) a Don Altobello? Pro-Slavery Democrat representative Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) the antagonistic equals of Barzini, Hyman Roth, and Lucchesi? The passionate Stevens, struggling to muzzle himself until a climactic congressional moment, so much like Frank Pentangeli?  In the President and Stevens, discussing and debating one’s moral compass while seeking "true north," don’t we see Michael Corleone telling Pentangeli, “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer”? And isn’t this Lincoln, played similarly by a man perceived as the generation’s greatest actor like Marlon Brando before him, an ungraspable, mysterious, and omniscient Godfather too?

I don’t think this is necessarily coincidental (or particularly vital, as others remark how the picture is similar to Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent).  I may be reading too much into things, as I'm prone to do, but it makes sense that Spielberg would seek out a unique model to inspire his design, rather than fall back on the predictable look of other 19th century epics. He’s even retained Coppola’s motif of doors closing on people, keeping them in the dark and apart from the realities of whatever convoluted process or scheme is being concocted.

Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) and Mary Todd Lincoln visiting Congress.
And as The Godfather is about children struggling to comprehensively grasp and live up to their mysterious father, aren’t we all, presently as viewers, even as an international audience (read of Tolstoy’s adoration of Lincoln), Lincoln’s children, all of us jealously trying to claim his legacy and be his heirs? Still he remains elusive to us, his essence mysterious, a rare hero whose universalism may prove frustrating to a nation obsessed with its own exceptionalism, in turn leading the “exceptionalists” among us to denounce him as the espouser of a “Union” some of us didn’t want (for Ron Paul supporters and readers of Thomas DiLorenzo, he's the despotic hand of the Great Fed closing down on freedom, and ushering great violence along with him).  In his time and up close, the spirit of Abraham Lincoln was hard to grasp, and Walt Whitman, whose own universality and multitudes of contradictions mirrored Lincoln’s, pointed out how the President’s contemporaries were unable to portray the mystery and depth of his indelible face in art. He writes, “[His] look, though abstracted, happened to be directed steadily to my eye…[Far] beneath his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and direct expression of the man’s face. There is something else there" (my italics).

For Whitman that “something else” is of the same cosmic God-stuff in his leaves of grass, the smallest sprout of which “shows there is really no death,” and Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, using the visage and technical mastery of Daniel Day-Lewis, apply Whitman’s transcendentalism and Lincoln’s ceaseless intellectual movement of sensitivity and empathy to the cycle of history: “All goes onward and outward….and nothing collapses.” The American Civil War, as remembered by Walt Whitman, is not relegated to an isolated, concrete patch of history with half-a-million dead and maimed, their blood soaking the grass. It is an “era compressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempests of life and death – an inexhaustible mine for the histories, drama, romance, and even philosophy of peoples to come – indeed the verteber of poetry and art (of personal character too,) for all future America – far more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homer’s siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakspere.” The enigmatic face of Day-Lewis conveys the mystery of Lincoln, which connects to the perennial echoes beneath the circumstances in his times. A cosmic sweep of history isn't attained by Spielberg through David O. Selznick gusto (such as in the recent War Horse) or the extroverted events in Lincoln's life, which we would get in a big miniseries, but in inwardness masterfully conveyed by a thinking human face.

         "We should have run a better man against Lincoln when we had the chance." Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.

 This is why the casting of Day-Lewis is so perfect for Lincoln. An actor noted for his deep immersion and transformation into varied personalities with the most honed of technical skills, Daniel Day-Lewis almost always portrays the quality of thinking, of introverted depth. There is always a searching, studied calm on his face, a kind of knowing that only gradually reveals itself. It’s in the gay punk from My Beautiful Launderette, the palsy-afflicted poet Christy Brown in My Left Foot, Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, John Procter in The Crucible, even in the misfire Nine’s Felliniesque director Guido. In Gangs of New York, Bill the Butcher understands the "spectacle of fearsome acts” preserves his power. In There Will be Blood, Daniel Plainview deduces “the worst in people,” using that insight to his advantage. The womanizing brain surgeon Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being can aptly draw out how the Czech communists aren’t worthy of Oedipus, who at least tore out his eyeballs when he realized his sins. In The Last of the Mohicans, Hawkeye understands how his adversary, the Huron Magwa, “makes himself into what twisted him,” the oppressive and violent systems of colonial Europe being appropriated by Magwa to perpetuate war and greed. Day-Lewis’ characters repeatedly understand human nature and its innate imperfections.That is Abraham Lincoln.

The paradox of a man whose mind is ceaselessly evolving while moving inward is there with one of Lincoln’s first scenes, an unexpected picture of Lincoln’s dream life. He’s on a boat, coasting over water, accelerating through space and the future. He is describing the dream to his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), who identifies herself as his “soothsayer.” “I am keenly aware of my aloneness,” Lincoln says, adding that he’s “a king of infinite space.” But the boat, in this recurring dream, is now moving faster than it ever has. Too fast maybe.

The President's "soothsayer": Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field)
Is it Time? Space? Or is it Death fast approaching? As an audience, we are more aware than Lincoln that he only has months left on this planet. And indeed, if ever a life seemed to suggest the preciousness of Time nervously set against the urgency of death, accomplishment, and clarity, it’s Lincoln. Embroiled in Civil War, where each day returns countless more bodies and dismembered flesh, Abraham Lincoln is charged with solving the problem not only of Union, which is his primary goal, but of slavery, and completing the task of what was deliberately omitted from the Revolutionary documents nearly a century before him (slavery’s absence from the Constitution pointing out how it’s an insoluble problem, a riddling Sphinx, begging to be challenged and solved).  His Emancipation Proclamation from 1863 is only that – a “proclamation,” words, a temporary war measure that doesn’t free slaves in any of the border states. Unless slavery is legally abolished through a ratified Amendment to the Constitution, once peace is established things could go back to what they were before 1861. 700,000 lives are wasted along with four grueling years. Civil War would only temporarily subside before erupting in the future.

Team of Rivals: "Lincoln"
That’s what the dream is, Mary points out with frustration. This proposed, unpopular 13th Amendment. And it’s also Time, Space, and Death, stirred together in a quickening whirlpool. The complexity of the puzzle is in how Lincoln has to pass the amendment with an uncooperative and divided congress before peace is established, something the Confederacy, exhausted and now losing the war, is seeking. But to prolong the war for this unpopular measure – which the “people” could live without – is harmful to Lincoln’s character, the stakes of a meat grinding battlefield bringing him dangerously close to appearing like the despot his enemies have painted ("King Abraham Africanus the First" is how he's described on the House floor). A wonderful scene between Lincoln and William Seward shows this: the common folk, embodied in Mr. and Mrs. Jolly from Ohio, would rather the war ended without the amendment passing first. "Why?" Seward asks. Mr. Jolly says, as if the answer were all too obvious, "Niggers." The immediacy of life and death is more important than some Negroes getting their freedom and in one swoop poured over the land, competing with whites for land, jobs, and goods. This proposed amendment will require, according to Seward, “shady work.”  In our own time, regarding the uninsured, climate change. and gay marriage, we see how far behind “the people” typically are, not led by human empathy or a historical longview so much as by convenience, convention, and self-satisfaction. 

 Abraham Lincoln drew from the well of the literary canon, memorizing the poetry of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, seeing the dimensions of what constituted “the human” in the words.  Shakespeare’s characters - Lear, Hamlet, Brutus, Macbeth, Prospero, etc. - vividly portray the plasticity of human identity, its changing and mystery.  What Shakespeare richly gives his readers is not necessarily moral lessons to teach us the faults within ourselves, but rather the talent to observe and listen to ourselves while we think, as if we were literary characters.  In Lincoln, Spielberg and Day-Lewis convey this in the President’s deliberations, his back-and-forths, his stares, and in his dreams where the “aloneness” of an individual’s existence is overwhelming.

"There is something else there." Walt Whitman on Lincoln's face.
As a politician educated through the practice of Law, Lincoln is himself an actor tip-toeing on the stage of legalese and historical tumult. Whitman refers to him as “the leading actor in the stormiest drama known to real history’s stage through centuries.” And Spielberg and Kushner are always stressing the performance of politics in their film, in regards to the necessary posture a congressman like Thaddeus Stevens must assume in order to enable progress, in addition to the Lincolns “putting on a face” after their son Willie died three years earlier. Lincoln tells Stevens, “I admire your zeal” and “moral compass,” and “a compass will put you true north.” But Lincoln adds, “If you can’t avoid the swamps, what good is true north?” In front of congress, as Fernando Wood, the new amendment’s chief adversary, tries to goad Stevens into devolving into his abolitionist passion which would doom the vote, Stevens “performs,” sticking to Lincoln’s suggested script: "I don't hold with equality in all things, only with equality before the Law." Stevens is chided outside by fellow abolitionists for this compromise of his values, but as the checkered floor behind him suggests, he grasps the game of chess that this political journey of true north truly is.

Spielberg earlier dealt with this in Amistad, where the abolitionists take offense to the key means of defense a lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) offers to them: they can win through tiptoeing through "vagaries of legal minutiae," and yet doesn't this corrupt their "statement"?  In Schindler's List, Schindler and Stern work similarly through business arrangements and documentation, keeping Jews alive. "Do we have to invent a whole new language?" Schindler asks with anger. "I think so," Stern answers. Here, Lincoln, privy to the trajectory where their mutual narrative will go, informs Stevens of the inevitable Reconstruction squabbles, "We shall oppose each other in the course of time," but nothing can go forward unless the abolitionist leader makes this rhetorical compromise. Lincoln's masterstroke is to speciously reply to some conservative Republican congressmen question as to whether Southern representatives have made offers for peace before the vote. Wood is right that Lincoln's written reply, of "To my knowledge" no one from the South is in Washington to offer peace, is a "lawyer's dodge." But it works. And as with Schindler's list, where "all around its margins lies the gulf," the principle behind it trumps the means by which it is achieved. 

Elsewhere, Lincoln uses the theatrical quality of storytelling to stir his audience – a tool that may upset more practical and concrete thinkers, like his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), who storms off before Lincoln can relate an Ethan Allen anecdote with a punch-line involving the “sight of George Washington” making British officers shit themselves.  He uses lines to his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meant to discourage him from joining the Union Army, and Lincoln knows that it's the "same scene" played out between fathers and sons across the nation. Lincoln quotes Lear ("poor bare-fork'd animals") and Falstaff ("we have heard the chimes at midnight"), and attends an opera of Faust. Like Hamlet, Lincoln understands how "the play's thing thing" that will catch our consciences, how we are unwittingly acting in everyday discourse. As history is rendered as paper, illuminating humankind with each fresh recitation, Lincoln’s active and curious imagination is like that of an aesthete. As Whitman notes, the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford's Theater has a timeless meaning associated “in senses finally dearest to a nation…the imaginative and artistic senses – the literary and dramatic ones…A meaning precious to the race, and to every age.”

The performative quality of politics and statesmanship rhetoric can be of low stuff, geared to preserving and selfishly exerting power, relying on the implacable stone of “clout,” the subject of one of Roy Cohn’s memorable rants from Kushner’s Angels in America. Cohn says, "You are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe what they seem to mean," but "like all labels they mean tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology or sexual taste [Cohn is referring to his status/non-status as a homosexual with AIDS], but something much simpler: clout." We hear the word "freedom" used too cynically nowadays, a front covering nefarious ends. On the other hand, the strategic, theatrical presentation of the self, with which we always see Lincoln here, can be another tool and mask concealing the “self-evident” truths which are obstructed by “clout” and selfishness. Indeed, the villainous Cohn may well be speaking for Lincoln and his approach to Thaddeus Stevens, albeit towards virtuous ends, when he defends his use of labels and language: "This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy. This is reality."

Beyond that sophistry/reality, though, and its performative theater to be set down on documents for the ages, we know that race, the relationships between human beings is what truly is being communicated (again, as Mr. Jolly says, "Niggers"). And Lincoln the Shakespearian knew all about this. In Lear, the royal court is ripped apart for the king, who discovers the love of his flattering daughters was untrue, while Cordelia, the daughter who wouldn’t “play,” was his most loyal and compassionate progeny.  On the stormy heath, Lear strips and encounters the bare truth of human nature, the sublime awfulness of it, and the common denominator that links all people and nature. It’s from this scene in Shakespeare’s play that Lincoln thoughtfully draws, speaking to his black house servant, the confidante and dressmaker to his wife, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben). She asks if he will accept her people as equals.  "White people don't want us here," she says. "I don't know you or your people," he admits. But he says that her people, the same as his, is how Lear describes all of us: they're but "poor bare fork’d creatures, such as we all are," and so our expectations shouldn't be "incomprehensible to each other." Keckley had a son die for the Union Army, same as thousands of other mothers. "I'm his mother. What else must I be?" The boundaries of race are surpassed.

Lear’s illumination in literature and language gives Lincoln humility. Lincoln has that “knowingness” of which I spoke, but what distinguishes him from all other men, is that what he knows is that he, the Socratic man, doesn’t know. Lear’s tragic desolation makes this vain king see all men as equal (eyes being an important aspect of the play, the “vile jelly” being grotesquely gouged from Gloucester’s eyes). And it was Abraham Lincoln’s style as an orator and debater, in dealing with either slavery or temperance societies, to understand his opponents’ passion and views, and admit that were he in their shoes, he may very well be agreement with them. It’s the extraordinary gift of the imaginative heart and mind that gave him the upper hand in politics. As different as we are, we're are indeed all poor, bare fork'd creatures.


Steven Spielberg's Amistad
From the most superficial of glances, the marriage of Steven Spielberg, America’s most popular, warmest, and most manipulative of image manufacturers, and Abraham Lincoln, seems too perfect, but perfect in such a way that it could be disastrous, or at least a hackneyed, tiresomely "Oscar bait" effort of epic film production. This is based on a kind of dismissal of Spielberg that comes all too easily, and for which the director is at least partially to blame. We’ve been taught by Spielberg’s Hollywood New Wave best friends (Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese – both of whom emulate Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest of Hollywood voyeurs, the same way Spielberg does), to distrust what we see and what we feel by that which we see. The implication is that our feelings cloud our thoughts and obscure the truth. This is fair, and the same way Lincoln looks at the clock pendulum swinging back and forth like the fluctuating arguments of an Idea, I too have wavered on Spielberg, criticizing one moment (The Color Purple, Hook, Saving Private Ryan, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War Horse, The Adventures of Tin Tin) and passionately praising or ferociously defending elsewhere (Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jurassic Park, A.I., Minority Report, Munich).

Elliott and E.T. look, feel, learn.
Spielberg is a filmmaker who represents the sympathetic act of seeing, and from optical engagement we are changed emotionally, and then from that movement of heart we are changed intellectually, and so moved to decisively act. Repeatedly in Spielberg’s films we see this cycle of sight and mind, with the heart as a go-between. Recently writing about E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial, I noted how when E.T. says “I’ll be right here” to Elliott at the conclusion, he’s not pointing at the boy’s heart (as Elliott was when he had earlier said that line), but at his head, implying memory. E.T., an emissary of peace, engenders compassion in those surrounding him. He is visually linked with Elliott when their eyes meet, the creature mimicking what he sees the boy do (much like Chief Brody and son in that tender dinner table scene in Jaws). What E.T. feels, Elliott feels, and vice versa. Following the abundance of seeing is feeling, language (the Speak 'n Spell, "BE GOOD," E.T. beginning to talk), and finally action (Elliott "liberating" the frogs from a school dissection experiment, the kiss mimicked from The Quiet Man, E.T.'s construction of an intergalactic phone). Cinema itself, for Spielberg, becomes a catalog of memories influencing emotion and action, the transformative power of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, viewed by E.T. on television, being arguably the central moment of the picture, as it influences Elliott, so far away, to kiss a girl, linking the past (John Ford, John Wayne) to right now, alien to little boy, emotion to thought and action.

Pre-Cognition: Minority Report
Elsewhere, we see similar patterns in Jaws, when Mrs. Brody looks at an artist’s rendering of a shark attacking a boat, which moves her to immediately see her youngest son, sitting out on a boat in open water, in danger. She forcefully demands that he get out of the boat right now. In Amistad, one of the African defendants, though he doesn’t know how to read or speak English, actively interprets Dore illustrations from a Bible and is able to translate, between cultures, the mythology of Christ and apply it to his brethren.  Or think about A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, where the advanced mechas read the primitive love robot David’s memories as cinematic images, and treasure him as a storer of fossilized memories drawn from an extinct time. The process of sight proceeding cognition is of course loudly in Minority Report, where the clairvoyant “pre-cogs” feed visual images to John Anderton’s Pre-Crime unit, the pictures proceeding thought.  However, the negation of emotions on the part of the crime fighters in their analysis of a crime of passion soon-to-happen, leaves the system – and even the viewer/Anderton – susceptible. With these two films in particular, Spielberg  makes us think about our position as moviegoers (yes, oddly as much as his European critics Michael Haneke or Jean-Luc Godard). Spielberg, with the Kubrickian flavor of A.I. and Minority Report, was acknowledging his power to manipulate, where “clarity” is a drug and the illusions of happiness merely illusions (many people complain about the pat happy ending of Minority Report, but don’t consider that it’s in fact a construct in an imprisoned and comatose John Anderton’s head). Eyes are a black market commodity in Minority Report, while visually reliving memories an addiction.

"It's kind of a ride." Jurassic Park
It’s true, Spielberg is saying, that images lie and delude. But they are also potent, changing minds along with hearts. The greatest example is in the most problematic of Spielberg films, Schindler’s List, which we may criticize for making a trip to Auschwitz an “amusement park ride” not too distinct from what the archeologists venture into with Jurassic Park, thus trivializing a historical atrocity as “entertainment.” I’ve unfavorably compared Spielberg’s film to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, the former film being a “monument” conveniently set in an archived past, as we’re safe from the Holocaust and its meaning, while Polanski’s Holocaust is present, absurd, and of the same stuff that may happen again and again. But here again, reaching behind the frosting of sentimentality, I’m contemplating the Spielberg formula of sight/heart/mind/action. The film’s most famous of images may be Oskar Schindler, an affluent Nazi party industrialist, comfortably on horseback while the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto below gets his attention.  He looks.  In the black and white photography, we identify with Schindler’s optics through Spielberg’s imprint of the color red on a young girl’s red coat. Later on, Schindler will see that same red coat dug up from a mass grave. Schindler, who from his earliest moments is marked by how watchful he is (look at him in the cabaret), is shaken. Moved, he must act. And how does he act? Like Lincoln, through the maneuvering and masquerading of an official document, the titular “list,” which we are reminded is secretly “life,” an “absolute good.”

What Schindler sees: Schindler's List
We can ask, of course, if we are at all changed by Schindler’s List, or if we are re, in contrast to Polanski’s film, “safe” at this historical distance, with Spielberg’s choice to present history in black and white. And yet, though he may criticize the aesthetic and representation, growing up in the suburbs in 1990s, it was Schindler’s List that introduced the kids at school to the Holocaust, provoking our curiosity. And perhaps, being that Schindler’s List is about a “document,” just as Lincoln is about a “document,” the presentation of the film as a sort of monument meant to generate emotion is justifiable. Lincoln, like Spielberg, knew that the way to change a man’s head was to reach him first by the heart too. For Spielberg, “documents” or official cargo is by no measure insignificant. This is what the Ark of the Covenant is treated as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, isn’t it? And hell, if you look at it, it burns your flesh off. The top secret item that the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Quint’s story is transporting in Jaws is also something that burns the flesh off hundreds of thousands of people, the atomic bomb. Human beings are treated as texts of sorts in Munich, as espionage murders are gruesome spectacles that communicate the insoluble dialectic of rage (neither side able to put themselves in the shoes of the Other). Spielberg presents the darker side of communicative images when the Israeli assassins leave the sexually desirable enemy assassin exposed to view (“Leave it open,” one of them says after another tries to close her robe over her bleeding wounds). As a filmmaker, Steven Spielberg is always stressing the ramifications of sight and the symbolism of visual presentation on the exterior world. Cinema is memory, that which is etched deeply on our minds through vision.

"Keep your eyes closed!" Raiders of the Lost Ark
And Abraham Lincoln, so keen with intelligence, has those eyes that are also looking out, searching for people and identifying. “[He] stood observing the people,” Whitman writes of seeing Lincoln in person. “He look’d with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces return’d the look with similar curiosity.” Lincoln stepped on the theatrical scaffold of politics, playing a role that would deliberately etch himself into the memory of those around him. Doris Kearns Goodwin notes how Lincoln was aware of how he was perceived, and how the way people remember us may keep us alive after we are dead. “To see memory as the essence of life came naturally to Lincoln,” according to Robert Bruce, quoted in Goodwin’s text, for he was a man who “seemed to live most intensely through the process of thought, the expression of thought, and the exchange of thought with others.” Memory was a “midway world/’Twixt Earth and paradise” (to quote Lincoln’s poetry).

Cinema as memory: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
That brings me to what I feel is the central prop in Lincoln, a series of photographic glass plates, obsessively looked at by Lincoln’s youngest son, the precocious Tad. Along with toy soldiers splayed out on “official war maps” (which greatly angers Lincoln's "Thundering God of War" and "Neptune" who "shakes thy hairy locks," Edwin Stanton), Tad falls asleep on the floor with these plates, which are pictures of slaves who have been horribly scarred, or are up for sale, their list prices ($600) written in pencil below them. Lincoln wants to discourage Tad’s almost morbid fixation with the images, but we should note how they provoke Tad’s curiosity about the black servants in White House, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade (Stephen Henderson). Were they ever beaten like this? (Keckley says yes – with a fire shovel.) Were they put up for sale like livestock? As John Quincy Adams asks of the African prisoners in Amistad, what was their story?

One of the photograph glass plates of a former slave, obsessively viewed by young Tad Lincoln.

In addition to Tad’s stimulated curiosity, think about what Lincoln says. He has Tad to put the glass plates put away, but he instructs the child to "be careful with them." The images are history, to be preserved. They are something that may not only show, but in their presentation of degradation, they may sway, and hundreds of years in the future serve as documents pointing out where we came from, and how we should be wary of how we change through Time, that “great thickener of things” as Lincoln calls it. Lit by candles, like light going through projected film, Spielberg is making these images cinematic cousins to the filmmaker’s art, documents that illuminate the past. Tellingly, the final moments of Lincoln have the deceased President resurrected through the candlelight by his death bed, the flame dissolving into his Second Inaugural speech, during which Lincoln voices the need for a “just and lasting peace among ourselves with all nations.”  The words, like the images, and like the man whose words have usurped him and granted him immortality by etching him into our memory, are there to illuminate us, lighting the path for insight. Not, as is so often alleged of Spielberg, to blind and placate us. Note how Lincoln is awakened to the weight of the "terrible things" he has done with General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris), coming close and "intimate" with the corpses on the Petersburg,Virginia battlefield, still smoking after the great conflagrations that preceded it. "I've never seen the like of this before," Lincoln said. Yet Grant reminds him how he might have needed to see it up close.

Lincoln’s relationship to the present is one that the filmmakers are hesitant to embrace, precisely because of our politically divisive times, where Red States and Blue States seem to be drawn on the similar lines that divided a nation in the 1850s. For just as the South seceded soon after Lincoln, a progressive moderate who was by no means an abolitionist, was elected, so too did the Tea Party embrace measures (Voter ID, for example) which probably would not have been touched if a black man, Barack Obama, another moderate, was elected in 2008.  Such a deduction is wide open to criticism, I understand, but it’s harder to deny that of our nation’s current political halves, one half sees the Constitution as a fixed document, something that gives unassailable rights of self-governance, while the other understands that everything is in flux, and had those old squabbling codgers, the Founders, be around today, as men of science they would be a little flabbergasted at how backwards and obstinate we are, in many ways still fighting the Cold War (our nation’s fear of anything remotely “socialistic”) just as we’re still hearing, sometimes quite loudly, echoes of the Civil War – itself being the final series of battles in the Revolutionary War.  In Petersburg, we see the United States flag and the Confederate flag in the same frame for a moment. The difference is that the Confederate flag is fixed to the ground, while the United States flag moves forward, and out of the frame.

"We won't know ourselves anymore." Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley)
Though Lincoln accomplishes his checkmate within the congress, abolishing slavery for good and ending the war soon after, Spielberg and Kushner seem ambivalent about the prospect of an optimistic closure. The war ends, but we cut to a city (Richmond, Virginia, following the last siege of Petersburg) on fire. Lincoln wants to pardon deserting soldiers (“Peace comes, it can’t just be hangings”), but corpses are still wedded together in the dirt, Union and Confederate, and resentments ride high (“Liberty all around. Not revenge,” says Lincoln, knowing that the appetite for vengeance is too present). The wordless exchange between Grant and General Lee at Appomattox has a somber and haunting undercurrent. Peace is established, but in this world that's changed too rapidly for the South, the hatchet isn't buried. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, says to Lincoln about slavery’s end, “We won't know ourselves anymore.” Stephens points out how Lincoln's Union is built "on cannon-fire and death," with thousands of corpses lain to waste on his watch. The President accept this. One of Lincoln's gifts, again, was understanding how the opinions and emotions of his rivals were natural, and were he in their shoes, he may well feel the same. 

The resentment will continue to simmer, and outside the context of this film, without Lincoln’s guidance, Reconstruction won’t be tidy, and of course, injustices to the black race will continue through the next century and beyond.  What we have seen here made it possible to have the president we have today, yes, but the fear and distrust so prevalent regarding him are just as clearly linked, I think, to the attitudes displayed throughout Lincoln’s 1865.  But we should also note how delicately Spielberg and Kushner handle this scene between Stephens and Lincoln. I think there is a kind of incomprehension among the Southerners, a desperate sadness which conceives resentment naturally. Stephens is not like the John Calhoun (Arliss Howard) from Amistad, who arrogantly puts the fire of a secessional threat to President Martin Van Buren's (Nigel Hawthorne) feet. Indeed, these characters are racist, backwards, and wrong - unable to grasp the simple declaration: "Slavery's done." But they are endowed by their filmic creators with sensitivity, a vulnerability behind their ferocious and reactionary words. 

Our time also associates with Lincoln during the final carriage ride between Mary and Lincoln, during which they acknowledge how miserable they’ve been (“a long death” is how Mary earlier describes her migraine-afflicted life), and resolve to be happy. In peacetime, we return to Lincoln’s dreams, and he tells Mary how he’s not only been thinking about the West, but also the Holy Land, and Jerusalem. “I dream of walking in that ancient city,” Abraham Lincoln says, namesake of the father to three clashing religions who dwell there. Knowing that Kushner and Spielberg’s previous collaboration was the imperfect but masterful Munich, about Israel and Palestinians trapped in ceaseless bloodshed, we wonder of how distant that Jerusalem of 1865 must be, and how this great Philosopher President of “semi-divine stature,” is progenitor to a country which will be embroiled so detrimentally with matters related to that Holy Land in the years to come, as rockets are being fired to and from Gaza as I write this, and tensions with nearby Iran accelerate the unsteady hand of a doomsday clock.  Munich also questions our inability to prognosticate the future and our ethical attitudes. The protagonist Avner (Eric Bana) listens the philosophical musings of a friend's girlfriend: "Should one look at right and wrong as ethical questions? That is the problem. Marcuse says Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right' does not assign a moral category to 'wrong.' Free will inevitably causes wrong. That's written by Marx. The blind anarchy of capitalism. You have to be prepared to reconsider right and wrong. Because basically those are just terms that express a horrible struggle, parts of an equation of pure dialectic." Avner looks on while sharing marijuana, and admits with a laugh that he really doesn't understand. But Lincoln has the same affect on Seward when he talks about Time and our inability to look into "the seeds of Time" and see how those seeds would grow. Seward admits his incomprehension, and Spielberg's audience laughs. But though there's no "profit in prophecy," as Lincoln tells Robert, Spielberg and Kushner want to have us consider, with our perceptions and the causal path of geopolitical events, a longview of incessant change, with ideas in friction conceiving new ideas and perceptions. 
The insoluble dialectic: Munich
Our present uncertainties involving the Holy Land reminds us of Lincoln’s closing words, where the Great Emancipator and emissary of Union is talking about a lasting peace not only “among ourselves” but with all nations. Abraham Lincoln is Whitman’s hero of Union, not only as President of the "Union," but as a representative of the transcendental union between all lines of separation, where random and diverse events, in the most horrifying scenes, are absorbed into the Great Self.  The accident of rhetoric materializes as something Lincoln draws from the abyss, the black hole of his large hat into which he stares while considering what to telegraph Ulysses Grant at a crucial moment, finding Euclid. This quiet scene, where Lincoln’s contemplations are treated self-reflexively by Spielberg as the President is framed within a frame, questions the construction of purpose. "Do we choose to be born?Are we fitted to the times we're born into?" Lincoln asks. One of them, an engineer, is skeptical of anyone orchestrating history, setting the clocks: "There's machinery, but no one's doing the fitting." Like a film director, Lincoln knows that the significance of composition and the arrangement of his words, framing purpose and representing ideas (later, he'll admit that one of his final speeches was inadequate) in a maze of machinery that active individuals must hold up. Like Lincoln's first speech in the film, as a flag is being raised, he will raise the flag "if there be no fault in the machinery," and then it will be up to the people to keep it up. Lincoln also refers to Euclid's law of equals as "mechanical" law, something self-evident and true, but being such, it rests on us to exercise the abstraction in reality. 

Moving forward: Lincoln
The war and slavery are problems to be solved, like a film, which presents an infinite matrix of possibilities for presentation (where to place the camera and actors, where to cut, where to have music, etc).  Conducting his own Lincoln Symphony, Spielberg and Kushner eschew the storied notes of Ann Rutledge, Lincoln-Douglas, the 1860 Republican nomination and election, the secession of the South, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Ford’s Theater. Instead, the essence and mystery of Lincoln, which appropriately remains mysterious, is compounded into these few months before he is claimed by “the ages.” Lincoln is fixed on the Gordon Willis-like chiaroscuro shadows, only incidentally moving to the flame for Lincoln’s light. Spielberg, the great voice of American narrative film, and so progeny of D.W. Griffith, reverses the representational wrongs of Birth of a Nation, in which Thaddeus Stevens and his biracial mistress/housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, influenced negative cinematic depictions. Here Thaddeus and Lydia are not only the moral heroes of Lincoln, but as cinematic touchstones linking Griffith to Spielberg, they show how indeed history has moved in nearly 100 years of moving images in America. This is why the preservation of images, be it Tad Lincoln’s photographic plates or something theatrical and designed like an expensive motion picture, is important. These artifacts of captured light show us how we move through Time.

Birth of a Nation (1915): The naive abolitionist Austin Stoneman - based on Thaddeus Stevens - manipulated by his conniving mulatto housekeeper, Lydia Brown (based on Lydia Hamilton Smith). Spielberg reverses the filmic representation of these two characters near Lincoln's conclusion, as Smith reads the 13th Amendment to Stevens, the two lying in bed together.
More than the abolitionist Stevens, I think young Tad is our audience surrogate.  Making the White House his playground, and traversing through it like Danny Torrence in The Shining (speaking of an interiorized protagonist and father figure influencing the outside dwellings!), we, Lincoln’s spiritual children, are analogous to the child, who is also in a theater when news comes of the great man’s assassination. The boy is watching a take on Aladdin, perhaps the kind of fairy tale we associate with Steven Spielberg as much as we do sentimental passages of history..  The director has made films about family dysfunction his whole career, beginning with the political chaos of post-Watergate with Jaws followed by a series of absent or distant fathers, reflecting the anxieties of a national audience distrustful of innately corrupt institutions.. He leaves us now with the definitive father, reclaimed but just as quickly stolen away. Spielberg has been delicate with us, like Lincoln with his children. Maybe too delicate. And though his touches still resound here, they are subtler than expected. He is still guiding us, taking us into his arms and showing us pictures, like Lincoln with Tad, but acknowledging that we’re mature.

The wonderfully insightful New York critic Bilge Ebiri writes about how Spielberg presents father and son in the picture, tying them to America’s destiny, noting that Tad is “something of a ghost, or an angel – a figure in whom America’s past, present, and future merge. The son might, in a sense, represent the nation’s conscience — both its broken promise of freedom and its belief in a higher purpose.”  The most stirring shot of Lincoln figures after the climactic vote, the bells ringing with promise in the distance, father and child embracing tightly together and looking out of the shadows and into the light of day with the drapes and thick saturating white enshrouding them. We feel their distance from us, but are  reminding of how our present is forged restlessly, even from such a distance, every gesture and word filled with inception and budding possibilities.

(Like Lincoln, I'm afraid I carry the traits of a bad preacher: "I could write shorter sermons, but when I start I get too lazy to stop." If you just scrolled to the end here and thought this was too long, an abridged version of my take on Lincoln can be found here at l'etoile magazine's website).

I'm also going to link other blogs and insightful reviews Lincoln as they come around, in addition to making my own revisions:

The brilliant Cinephiliacs maestro Peter Labuza's take.
Another piece by Bilge Ebiri, linking Lincoln to Amistad.
Sean Gilman, of The End of Cinema blog.
James Callahan of Artist Access on Lincoln, and his favorite Spielberg films. He's awesome, because our two favorites are identical (solidarity A.I. lovers). 
Scott MacDonald of the Toronto Standard.
Kevin Levin of The Atlantic defends Lincoln from nitpicking historians.
Two pieces by Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, on the film and the lessons the film may have for President Obama.  
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly. 
A.O. Scott of The New York Times.
Historian Roy Blount Jr. in The Smithsonian.
MSN critic Glenn Kenny.
Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times.
Omar Moore of