Lincoln

Time passed, as happens

LincolnI’ve never cared much for political biopics, glorification of History’s Great White Guys, or the films of Steven Spielberg, but perhaps that’s why Lincoln did something for me – its subversion of all three forms.  Yes, it’s a film specifically designed to win Academy Awards, but the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln dilutes the Hollywood Design to the point that the film becomes less like a film and more like sitting in various rooms with the President during the last few months of his presidency.

The film’s title may be a bit of a misnomer, but its chief intention (Oscars for Spielberg) requires it to be the “definitive” Lincoln film, especially since two other Lincoln-themed movies (Redford’s The Conspirator and the campy Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) have been released in the past two years.  You may expect a story so definitively named to cover the title character’s entire life, or at least his up-and-coming years when he was wrestling for the presidency, but no; here, we see Lincoln in his final months of life, struggling to pass the 13th Amendment (the abolition of slavery) whilst being driven to the edge by his home life.  Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) supports her husband’s politics, despite their marital problems, which include the death of their middle son and the fact that Lincoln once threatened to have her put in the “madhouse.”  Additionally, Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to join the army, which Mary staunchly opposes and which Lincoln, regardless of his status as Commander-in-Chief, cannot do a damn thing about.

The timeworn trials of the Lincoln family take a backseat to the political action and sometimes feel wedged between the complex narrative involving the Amendment.  It is worth noting, however, that even though we know slavery will be abolished, Lee will surrender to Grant (Jared Harris, who hardly needs makeup to look like the general), and the Amendment will pass, the story still feels urgent and exciting.  Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is depicted as the Louisiana farmboy he was, not the baritone man’s man archetype we sometimes like to glorify him as.  He actually had a high-pitched voice (the only way he’d be heard in the back row of the giant crowds to which he gave speeches).  He was sympathetic, self-deprecating, and bizarre.  He loved to tell stories and tie old parables into what was happening in the White House.  Day-Lewis, famous method actor, completely becomes Lincoln in this picture, and even gets his obligatory Day-Lewis-Closeup-Yelling scene, but even then, you’ll only see the president here, not an actor.  Lincoln’s famous bowler hat is of course included, but is never played for laughs or even for much attention; it may as well be an extension of the man himself.  Long shots provide Day-Lewis and the rest of the cast with incredible opportunities to paint carefully-crafted pictures of their historical characters.

The film’s primary standout feature, aside from Day-Lewis’s performance, is the sight of the House of Representatives floor, whereupon abolitionist and Radical Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) pushes for the passing of the Amendment while trying not to appear as a race-equality extremist.  He butts heads with slimeball Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), in fiery exchanges that I can only hope have been transcribed verbatim.  The sheer animalistic nature of the countless dozens of white men on the floor looks like something out of a parody, but we sometimes forget that this is the way it once was.  The scenes of these congressmen shouting, chanting, climbing over each other, and clawing faces, forms a perfect parallel with the opening scene of the movie – a brief glimpse at a battle from the Civil War, in which hundreds of soldiers melee to the death in a pit of mud – showcasing how absurd war really is.  Lincoln knows it, as does Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who treats Lincoln like a misbehaving child when the latter skirts histrionics or does something behind Seward’s back (such as bringing Confederate representatives to the North in order to talk peace, essentially holding the end of the war hostage until the Amendment is passed).

Lincoln features possibly the largest cast of white guys ever assembled.  So many famous and accomplished actors appear, in fact, that it becomes almost a joke after awhile, as they continue to appear one by one.  Noted comedian James Spader appears as William Bilbo, a lobbyist who has some amusing scenes as he tries to convince Democrats to vote for the 13th Amendment; Michael Stuhlbarg, known for starring in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein, plays George Yeaman, Kentucky’s reprsentative, and puts on an interesting southern twang; David Costabile of Flight of the Conchords plays James Ashley, and very convincingly; Tim Blake Nelson has the part of Richard Schell, who leads Lincoln’s, shall we say, “street team” along with Bilbo; Walton Goggins, who appeared in Tarantino’s Django Unchained as a character with a much different view on slavery, appears as Wells Hutchins, one of the 16 democrats to break with their party in favor of the Amendment; Hal Holbrook, who played Lincoln in 1976, plays Francis Preston Blair, the politician who arranges a peace talk with the Confederacy; and refreshingly, Gloria Reuben appears as Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and Mary Todd’s confidante, who receives plenty of screen time and a very important scene with the president near the end.

If the film has one pitfall, it’s where Spielberg chooses to end it.  A lovely scene on the night of Lincoln’s death features the president leaving his cabinet behind in order to hurriedly meet with Mary for the opera.  “I guess it’s time to go,” he says, “though I would rather stay” – purportedly Lincoln’s real-life final words to his cabinet that evening; whether or not he prophesied his own fate is up to you.  He then hands his gloves, which he refuses to wear, to his black butler, a free man, who watches Lincoln traverse the hallway until he becomes a silhouette of that tall, bearded, bowler-hatted American icon we all know.  In shadow, he then descends the stairs, leaving this life behind, the gloves perhaps a metaphor for Lincoln passing the baton to the people he has helped free.  This is where the film should end.  Instead, there is maybe another two minutes of reel, in which Lincoln’s shooting is announced to opera-goers, a doctor pronounces him dead as his family grieves, and then a flashback of his second inaugural address is shown before the credits roll.  Is this pure indulgence, a stab at absolute completion, or does Spielberg believe that modern viewers don’t know what happened to Lincoln that night?

Lincoln reminds me of something my dad said the other day, regarding HBO’s John Adams miniseries: “I learned so much more watching that than I did in school.”  Do biopics like these take liberties with history and dramatize people and events?  Yes, of course.  Historical fiction exists to observe and interpret history, not to provide a substitute for facts.  Is there something real, though, that can be learned from a film like Lincoln, whether about the man or the time period?  Maybe.  Regardless, let’s hope we can continue to remember without relying upon the entertainment industry, or else our grandchildren are in trouble.

Lincoln (2012); written by Tony Kushner; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Detachment

Always absorbing everything everywhere all the time

I was a substitute teacher for two years. If that wasn’t enough of a reason for me to be treated for serial masochism, consider this: I was a substitute teacher at three schools, and two of them were the elementary school and the high school that I attended as a student. The third, situated in a slightly better-off nook of the rural fringe (at least until Hurricane Irene) had been my high school’s perennial rival. My old school district still employed teachers with whom I’d taken classes as a child; now we were colleagues. Nobody at the Other School cared for me much.

Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody in Tony Kaye’s Detachment, reflects the characteristics I tried to embody during my stint as a sub — namely, a genuine empathy for students and a desire to put time and care into teaching them something that would stick. Barthes, despite working a job in which everything is temporary — school, class, relationships with coworkers, bonds with students — takes his duties seriously and delivers lessons (which seem to be completely of his own invention, not from any curriculum I might recognize) with vigor. When Ms. Madison (Christina Hendricks), a fellow teacher, asks why he doesn’t become a real teacher, Barthes responds, “I teach every day. What do you mean?”

Detachment is an engrossing, occasionally heavy-handed (mainly when it slaps us with quotes from Albert Camus and Edgar Allen Poe), character-driven story that follows Barthes through three weeks of personal and professional trials. He has begun subbing at an urban school with a decaying administration, exhausted teachers, and students who threaten him within five minutes of his first class. He frequently visits his grandfather (Louis Zorich), who lives in a care facility, his memory and life-force slowly fading. He also meets Erica (Sami Gayle), a sixteen-year-old prostitute who roams the bus route near Barthes’ small apartment. After witnessing her physical abuse at the hands of a repulsive customer, Barthes decides to let her stay with him for a while. The ephemeral nature of everything in Barthes’ life is immediately evident: these are all temporary situations. Eventually, he will have to move on to a new school. His grandfather will die. Erica will have to move out. His reasons for embracing this lack of commitment, whether consciously or unconsciously, are explored through intermittent flashbacks, which slowly unravel the fact that Barthes’ mother killed herself when he was young, and he never knew his father.

What initially enthralled me about this film is that it takes an old trope — the Man With No Name — and applies it to two characters, then forces them to spend time together. Barthes is stoic and ashen for nearly the entire film, maintaining “I have no feelings you can hurt” and that “I’m a non-person. You can see me, but I’m hollow.” Erica comes out of nowhere, materializing on the bus as Barthes cries in his seat. According to the formula, familiar to us from the old Westerns like Shane, the Man (or Woman) With No Name appears abruptly “just passing through;” (s)he gets involved in other people’s business, solves a core problem or provides the necessary tools with which to solve it, then disappears, never to be seen again. This is the myth Barthes wants to claim for himself. He says he has no feelings yet he’s vulnerable, prone to quick anger and deep sadness at matters over which he has no control. His job allows him to show up, have an impact, then vanish. Just as he begins displaying emotion, Erica appears. Erica becomes the catalyst for Barthes’ change; they form a classic Travis-Iris Alliance and the better sides of both begin to shine through the grime of the workday.

The film features an ensemble which includes Christina Hendricks (sadly underused), James Caan, Lucy Liu, Marcia Gay Harden, Bryan Cranston, Blythe Danner, and Tim Blake Nelson. The teachers often appear in group scenes in which they get to kvetch about the school; these scenes, along with Barthes’ disconnected testimonials, out the film’s agenda in regard to the education system in America (and screenwriter Carl Lund’s feelings are, to say the least, not optimistic). Memorable exchanges include a harrowing scene in which Liu’s character, the school guidance counselor, finally snaps into a histrionic (yet genuine) polemic concerning the hopelessness of the students at her school — this is directed at a student, who begins to absorb the lesson, but then responds with “Fuck you” and walks out. Caan’s character, a substitute for the former dean (another temporary situation) shows students pictures of gonorrhea-infected genitals. Nelson’s character, yet another unhappy teacher, spends his breaks standing on the school’s playing field, staring at the sky. Barthes finally notices.

Barthes: You alright?

Mr Wiatt: What, you see me? You see me standing here?

Barthes: Yeah, I see you.

Mr Wiatt: Oh god. So relentless. Thank you. Thank you!

Unfortunately, we see most of these supporting characters only fleetingly with Barthes. The most developed relationship is a hackneyed attempt at romance between Barthes and Ms. Madison.

In spite of his apparent apathy, Barthes puts care into his lessons when he could just be a glorified babysitter, and we can see in his face that he wants to leave these students with something. Consider this speech from his first week teaching the new students.

“How are you to imagine anything if the images are always provided for you?” He goes on to explain doublethink: “Deliberately believing lies while knowing they are false. Examples of this in everyday life: I need to be pretty to be happy. I need surgery to be pretty. I need to be thin, famous, fashionable. Our young men today are being told that women are whores, bitches, things to be screwed, beaten, shit on, shamed. This is a marketing holocaust! Twenty-four hours a day, for the rest of our lives, the powers that be are hard at work, dumbing us to death. So to defend ourselves and fight against assimilating this dullness into our thought processes, we must learn to read, to stimulate our own imaginations, to cultivate our own consciousness, our own belief systems. We all need these skills to defend, to preserve, our own minds.”

How many of these students will learn to read, to cultivate their minds, to think independently? In this situation the moviegoer is just another temporary visitor witnessing a story that is clearly the middle of a story. If evolution begets resolution, then the end is well on its way, because there is a good amount of evolution on the part of Barthes once things begin to change (he confronts his feelings about his mother, finishes his three weeks at the new school, and makes two very substantial decisions about Erica).

In the final shots, Barthes reads aloud the opening of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as the school empties around him (nailing the parallel between the Usher house and family and the school). Has he let go? Will he become a real teacher? Explore a new career altogether? Has he left his fixation on the transient behind him after his experiences over the last three weeks? What’s the next step with Erica (there’s a conclusion to this story in the film, but even so there must be another step at which we can only guess)? I like that Detachment seeks to tell a human story (and tackle large social issues), dropping questions in the audience’s lap without making pretentious and unavailing stabs at final answers.

Detachment (2012); written by Carl Lund; directed by Tony Kaye; starring Adrien Brody, Sami Gayle, Christina Hendricks, and James Caan.

  • Calendar

    • August 2020
      M T W T F S S
       12
      3456789
      10111213141516
      17181920212223
      24252627282930
      31  
  • Search