Monday, November 19, 2012

Lincoln: The Most Exciting Movie About People Talking You'll Ever See

There's an old saying in film... and it actually extends to most entertainment in a certain respect: "Show, don't tell."

The meaning of this saying is that if you have a character is a story tell us that something is the way it is, that is far less effective and entertaining than actually showing it. As an example, what's more interesting? Morpheus telling Neo that the Matrix is a false reality and that humans are actually trapped in pods of goo where they are used as batteries for machines, or having Neo wake up in one of those pods? Yes, I know Morpheus exposits about it later anyway, but he does so with visual references and it carries weight because of what Neo has already experienced. The point still stands. No one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself.

Guidelines such as this often exist to help young artists give their work structure. Proper technique and form makes performing something difficult considerably easier. For example, if you've never played the trumpet before, on your first attempt, you might play with your cheeks puffed out. However, an instructor might tell you that that is improper form. They would be correct. It is easier to play if you don't puff your cheeks out. Yet some might recall iconic images of famous trumpet players with their cheeks puffed out like you wouldn't believe. Well, this is for two reasons: 1) They were probably self-taught and thus always played that way without an instructor to tell them otherwise. 2) When you are that good, you don't need to follow all the guidelines to play well.

In other words, rules exist to guide the newbies and to be broken by the masters.

Steven Spielberg is undoubtedly a master. So when I say that "Lincoln" almost constantly defies the saying "Show, don't tell," I don't mean that in a negative sense. I mean that the majority of the film has old people talking to one another about a lot of things that we never see, but it still manages to completely engross you in it. Despite this film only taking place during roughly one year of Lincoln's life, and despite the fact that the film is less about Lincoln and more about his greatest accomplishment (the 13th amendment), this film still manages to give us a very complete picture of the man and the people close to him.

In almost every scene involving Lincoln, at some point he will start sharing an amusing anecdote, either (allegedly) from his own life, or just an amusing story he once heard. We never see the scenes he describes, even if they are real events that involved him personally. A lesser filmmaker would have caked this screenplay with red ink, probably writing "Show, don't tell" a thousand times during every monologue. They would have expanded the story to encompass his entire life, or cut to flashbacks while we hear Lincoln describe the scene in voice-over, or they would have cut the voice-over entirely, since that is also often considered "lazy". That would be the "proper" way to do this sort of film, and one can't blame them. If this film had been directed by anyone else, I doubt that it would have worked. If they had anyone other than Daniel Day-Lewis in the role, I don't know if it would have worked. But because it makes it work, it is far far better this way than what it would have been if done "properly".

Because Spielberg is such a captivating filmmaker from a visual standpoint (that man could make drying paint visually interesting) and because Daniel Day-Lewis is such a captivating orator as Lincoln, these scenes where we literally just hear Lincoln tell a story for a few minutes are some of the best scenes in the movie. Not only do they tell us more about Lincoln's life and his particular sense of humor, we as an audience experience first-hand his ability to enthrall with the power of words. If we were just shown these anecdotes or shown these other parts of Lincoln's life, we wouldn't have understood just how powerful Lincoln's words were.

Also, even though these anecdotes are generally very straightforward, Spielberg often finds a way to inform them visually. For example, one of Lincoln's best anecdotes involves a story about an interestingly placed portrait of George Washington, and as he describes it, we often cut to the portrait that hangs in the very room they are in. It not only feeds the imagination, it makes us wonder in the back of our minds, "Is Lincoln just making this shit up off the top of his head? If it were a picture of a dog, would he have told an anecdote about a dog instead?" Spielberg makes us feel like one of the people that Lincoln is talking to, and when everyone in the room shuts up and is suddenly speechless after Lincoln finishes spinning his yarn, we too are ready and waiting for Lincoln to drop the hammer.

Another thing that makes Spielberg Spielberg is the fact that he does not use someone else's iconography. He creates his own damned iconography. No, he will not show us Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. No, he will not show us the assassination. Spielberg is not trying to show us his version of things we've already seen or imagined. He has no interest in showing us things we've already seen (except that one time when he remade "War of the Worlds" or when he made the sequel to "Jurassic Park"). He's not going to stand on the shoulders of giants. He is a fucking giant, and goddammit, he will fucking remind you in case you forgot.

Probably the best thing about this film is that it treats Lincoln like a character, not as an historical icon. As I said, most other films about Lincoln would probably show us most of his life, from birth to earth. The highlight reel. However, it seems that only films about historical people show us their entire lives. All other films just show us a tiny sliver of their lives and they give the audience a deeper understanding of who these people are through their words and actions. This film keeps its story very focused on probably the most important year of Lincoln's life (which also happened to be his last one) and uses his very rich history to give his character depth rather than influence the actual plot or focus of the film.

And that's not to say that all of Lincoln's interactions in the film directly influence the central conflict regarding the passage of the 13th amendment. Not at all. In fact, most of the scenes involving Lincoln's eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln (AKA Jinxy McDeath) have little-to-no bearing on the actual plot of the film. Once again, if we were playing by the rules, these scenes would probably have been cut or contrived to somehow influence the story more directly. But really all it does is give Lincoln more personal drama to deal with. Yes, it also indirectly gives us another reason to hope that the amendment gets passed, but I don't think we as an audience really needed a reason other than "racism sucks". Good ol' Jinxy reminds Lincoln that his stalling regarding the war could cost him the life of another son and the sanity of his wife, but those aspects aren't really necessary to communicate the urgency of the war or the amendment to us as an audience. Still, this movie is called "Lincoln", not "The 13th Amendment". This movie is about Lincoln and by showing his emotional baggage, we get a complete understanding of who he is and what is going through his mind as he tells Ulysses S. Grant to stall for time. The 13th amendment is the structural core of the film's plot, but plot should not be in service to itself, but in service to the characters. In this case, the passage of the 13th amendment is the central conflict of the story because it was arguably Lincoln's greatest challenge. We see him at his best and his worst and even if this movie won't help you pass your history test on the life of Lincoln, you'll still feel like you understand this Lincoln better than the Lincoln you'd see in a more traditional biopic.

From what I've read, Tony Kushner had a lot of trouble writing this screenplay, and I can understand why. He probably struggled to put his finger on exactly what aspects of Lincoln to delve into, and I'm also willing to bet that he was not all that happy with how his work turned out. It doesn't help that Kushner has mostly just written plays during his writing career and thus was probably more interested in writing dialogue than action. This happens a lot with playwrights who dabble in film and television. Even incredibly talented writers will fall into the trap of telling rather than showing simply because on stage, you don't have the freedom of cutting from scene to scene. I honestly think that if a different director read the script and told Kushner to, "Show, don't tell," Kushner would have apologized, agreed, and rewritten accordingly. But Spielberg made it work, and its unorthodox approach gives it an edge. A master's mark. The fact that Spielberg took a screenplay that most other filmmakers probably would have rewritten and elevated it into something amazing is a testament to his immense talent, which we are constantly reminded of and impressed by throughout the film. The most well-known filmmaker makes a film about the most well-known President of the United States  and somehow manages to make it feel wholly original, and a lot of that is thanks to the screenplay, or more specifically, Spielberg's decision to use it.

Beyond just the technical aspects of the film, it pretty much goes without saying that the acting is amazing. Daniel Day-Lewis, as I mentioned, captures the essence of Lincoln without depending on familiar phrases, mannerisms, or iconography. We almost never see him wearing the hat, we rarely see him give speeches, and the ones he gives are probably not the ones most Americans are familiar with. His voice is softer and higher-pitched than most people are used to (though obviously it is more historically accurate).

Oftentimes, actors and actresses who portray historical figures are often seen as Oscar-baiting, and perhaps with good reason. In a way, it's easier to portray a character based on a real individual since there's a great wealth of information for the actor to draw from to influence their performance. However, as easy as it may seem, it is actually very difficult to portray a character when you already have an image of that character in your mind. It is hard to lose yourself in a different personality when your mind instinctively believes this person to be a separate entity rather than a part of yourself. I used to act when I was a teenager and a lot of my more serious acting friends would often refuse to watch other performances of the plays or musicals we did simply because they didn't want to subconsciously influence their performance. However, when you are playing Abraham Lincoln, it's pretty much impossible to forget that he was a real person with very familiar mannerisms and traits and that you are not him. The difficulty, therefore, of portraying an historical figure is to make the audience believe that you are them without resorting to simple caricature.

So yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is definitely going to win an Oscar for this performance, and when he does, the cynics will use him as an example of the Academy favoring actors who play historical roles rather than actors who play original characters. While I don't wish to defend the Academy or deny this cynical assertion, I do wish to defend Daniel Day-Lewis' performance. He will win the Oscar not because he played Lincoln, but because he was Lincoln. The Lincoln he gave us was as far from caricature as you can get. He played Lincoln like a person who had never even heard of Lincoln before. He played Lincoln with such a fierce dedication and understanding and faithfulness to who he truly was that if anyone tells me that he doesn't deserve his accolades, I will smack them across the face.

I know I've already gone on for quite a while about this film, but there's one last thing that I love about this film. Specifically, I love how it depicts the political process. Despite the fact that Kushner's screenplay was mostly finished around the same time Obama took office, it's fairly clear that the current state of the American legislature shaped what eventually became the finished product. And it's not just from throwaway lines like, "When has the Republican Party ever unanimously agreed on anything?" or "I founded the Republican Party to be a conservative anti-slavery party," but by showing us a political process that felt simultaneously familiar and completely alien.

It is a strange cognitive dissonance. We see a House of Representatives filled with loud and boisterous movers and shakers, we see the Democrats as the party of racism and traditionalism and the Republicans as the party of progress, and we think, "Man, so much has changed." Then we see the Democrats obstinately denying the passage of the 13th amendment out of pure spite and political zeal and think, "Man, things haven't changed a bit."

In this time of year after a very long and heated election, it is easy for Americans to get discouraged with the democratic process. "Lincoln" does a lot to restore faith in the process, but not through naive optimism or stirring speeches that change the hearts of cruel men. No, we have our faith restored through cold calculation and corruption in the service of good. This film says, "Yes, even 'Honest Abe' was not above political schemes, bribes, and deceptions in the service of his political agenda," but it never forgets to remind us that, "His agenda was to end slavery."

Toward the end, when Lincoln is talking to the Confederate leaders who are upset about the 13th amendment (spoiler alert: Lincoln ends slavery), he tells them that blocking the ratification of the amendment is off the table and he subtly insinuates that if they wanted to affect U.S. legislation, maybe they shouldn't have seceded in the first place. The point being that, yes, sometimes the country can go in awful directions or sometimes just directions that we disagree with, but you can't win if you don't play. Yes, the political process is ugly, corrupt, slow, and stupid, but it's what we've got, and the good guys can bend the rules just as well as the bad guys can.

During the passage of Obamacare, I think a lot of Obama's supporters were disappointed with the results. I know I was. It felt like it was burdened with endless compromise, pages and pages of pork, never-ending debate, and even then, the Democrats had to pull an obscure rule to force it through without bipartisan support. I think a lot of us felt like they should have scrapped it and started over from scratch. Keep it simple, avoid the lobbyists, and vote for it when it's perfect. But what I eventually came to terms with over the past couple years was that Obamacare, despite all of its flaws, is better than nothing. Over the past several decades, almost every single elected President has promised health care reform as a part of their platform, regardless of the party they belonged to, and with minor exceptions regarding new programs for specific groups or problems within the system, they have all failed. If Obamacare was taken back to the drawing board, another proposal never would have been reviewed by Congress during this administration. Obama would have had one more failed promise, and it very well might have cost him the election. If Romney had won, he would have repealed Obamacare, and despite his insistence to propose a newer, better version of it, I guarantee you that if he did, it would have failed just like every other attempt to pass sweeping health care reform. The only way this kind of legislation was ever going to work was with compromise, political trickery, impenetrable legalese, and gallons and gallons of corruption. It may not be perfect, but as the saying goes, done is better than perfect.

In a way, this movie mirrors that process. Lincoln's administration does a lot of shady things over the course of the movie. They know that the main reason most white people support the amendment is because they believe it will help end the war, but without that motivating factor, ending slavery might not have happened for another generation. Lincoln wants the war to end, but he doesn't want it to end (or appear to be ending) before the passage of the amendment. The conservative Republicans will only support the amendment if they believe that the war shows no clear end in sight and that Lincoln is actively pursuing every opportunity to negotiate peace. The radical Republicans don't just want to end slavery, they want equal rights for all races, and it is difficult for them to pretend that they don't want this amendment to act as the first step in that direction. Lincoln has a moral obligation to the thousands who risk their lives on the field of battle, but he also has a moral obligation to the millions of slaves and freedmen that continue to face oppression. Beyond the ethical implications of stalling peace for the sake of political timing, we also see the administration flat-out bribing lame duck Democrats with jobs in order to win their votes.

Lincoln has to get down and dirty to help clinch the passage of the amendment, and the end result is perhaps not precisely what the radical Republicans (and the audience) would prefer. But as a character says towards the end of the film, "It's more than enough. For now."

It would have been nice for racism to have ended with one amendment over the course of two months, but it was simply unrealistic. What they managed to do was only a step, but the first step is often the hardest. Similarly, Obamacare is just a step. It might not work, but now that it is an absolute certainty that it will take full effect in 2014, politicians can no longer simply try and stop it. This ship is moving and it has passed the point of no return. It is going to happen, and when it does, we can finally stop talking about what Obamacare might do and finally see for ourselves what it will do. Then we can decide on what the next step to take is.

The often-forgotten promise of the Democratic experiment is the "experiment" part. We generally feel hesitant about legal experimentation because of what might happen, but we ignore the fact that laws can be changed or unmade just as easily as they can be made. We decide for ourselves what we want and reserve the right to change our minds at any moment in the future. Roughly 100 years ago, we outlawed alcohol. Then a few years later, we changed our minds. We tried something and it didn't work, so we stopped. Still, I'm glad that alcohol was outlawed for a brief period of time, because if they hadn't tried it, there would probably still be idiots proposing prohibition legislation to this day. If we didn't have historical evidence of our failed experiment in prohibition, those folks would never have shut up. Sometimes, the only way to convince someone of something is to roll the dice and see how things play out.

This was what Lincoln understood. Either they could have stood around and debated for years and years until the majority was convinced that slavery was evil, or they could have forced it down their opponents throats and shown them that America without slavery was a better America.

In other words: Show, don't tell.