I don’t read movie reviews as a general rule, although I love to read them once I’ve seen the film. The thing is, even though I work in the business, my moviegoing ebbs and flows, and the tides can be pretty steep. I’m moody, fairly cyclothymic, and movies aren’t exactly my life, although maybe they’re supposed to be. When I was in college and grad school I trained myself for a scholarly life, but I went into the movie business instead, which seems to have been a good decision. But I’m on the creative side, more or less, and I’m not a movie critic, and I never made the full leap from being a book guy into being a movie guy. And I’m not a book guy either, although I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction over the past five years from writing about books on this blog. I’ve only written about movies on a few rare occasions, mostly as they relate to books, rather reluctantly even then. My blog is anonymous, although it doesn’t really need to be at this point, because I didn’t want it to affect the illusion that I was doing my job. It seems safe to have opinions and reflect upon literature, but I’m not so interested in gossip, and I don’t want to muddy the industry waters, which are murky enough for me already.
I got asked to go to a screening of Lincoln at the DGA last night. It seems early in the game, like it hasn’t entered the reviewing cycle and not a whole lot of people have seen it, but you never know these days. There’s a lot of anticipation about the film, although I don’t follow fan and movie sites so I don’t really know (part of the problem with there being so much information is that we’re all on editorial overdrive, perhaps all of the time, or not, when we choose to ignore broad, well-populated swaths of culture), but the buzz that I’ve been hearing is that people are scared of it, they’re worried that it will be long and boring and ponderous, and they’re somehow both curious and slightly disinterested. It doesn’t seem like it’s fun, no matter how amazing it may be, and drama is a dirty word these days, except in television.
No, the movie is not fun, and in fact it’s a lot of work, and yes it is amazing, the very height, in its own way, of filmmaking accomplishment. It’s a grand lesson in a pivotal moment in American history and national and racial identity. The screenplay is marvelous, sustained brilliance in its concision and power and focus, which is pointed and narrow as it hones in on the historical moment and storyline, and expansive as it pertains to Lincoln’s humanity and character and the burden of his office, the reverberations of his actions and helmsmanship of the broken nation. It’s good and it’s meaningful and it’s well-done. The pace if fine and it’s captivating, pulling the audience into the awesome gravity of the moment with grace and seriousness and maturity. Spielberg’s abundant tricks of manipulation and intimacy are put to solid, respectful and mostly quiet use, while he remains the populist storyteller and consummate craftsman that he has been for 40 years and 25 films. But this movie is a lot of work, it doesn’t care if you see it the first weekend or before the Oscars or 25 or 50 years from now; it’s attempting to be timeless and it’s largely successful in doing so. It’s a culmination of Spielberg’s rather veiled and broad attempt, in some sort of collaboration with Tom Hanks at times, to teach us history, and shape our own identity in the process. With maturity, Spielberg’s sense of history has become increasingly profound, and his abilities as a cinematic storyteller seem well-matched to it now, finally, as he nears the twilight of his career. There’s an inevitable ponderance of death and human limits in this story, a deep part of its nature and the tragedy of Lincoln, and this would seem to apply to Spielberg. He won’t be making movies forever.
Perhaps it’s a perverse view to take, but I’ve had a long-standing penchant for reading Spielberg’s character into his films (I need to watch his recent 60 minutes interview), and it might be worth thinking about the subject of this movie as the death of filmmaking, the end of a classic and transformative media era in which Spielberg fully participated, playing Dickens to Scorsese’s Thackeray. I came out of the film with the overwhelming idea that it was a lot of work, that I really liked it but I like lectures and I love history and epics and I’m a pretty old school guy myself, as it turns out, inevitably, it seems. My other clear idea was that I can’t imagine anyone who is 25 today, or in the broader 15-35 age range, a young person who will live the greater percentage of their lives, by far, in the new century, ever making a film that is remotely like this one. There won’t be any reason for them to do so; the form of film and media and storytelling will have changed. The distance will be as great as the distance between this film and Gone with the Wind, even greater. It was said that George Gissing, my current literary interest and subject, “was sliding down the hill that Dickens ran up with such exuberance,” and it appears that Spielberg enjoyed his youthful ascendance to the peak and pantheon of Hollywood filmmaking, but the circumstances of his birth and epoch and social progress in his times suggest that his work will ultimately mark the ending of an era, rather than the beginning of one. His body of work continues to evolve organically, remaining as uncannily Dickensian as ever, questing after Shakespeare, classic, for the ages, a matter of taste and inclination in the present, great if you like this sort of thing, skewing ever older, away from audience towards timelessness–all of which I suppose aims it deadeye towards the Academy, a shot that hits Oscar right between the eyes.
Which isn’t to say that there’s no fun at all. Marvin Levy, Spielberg’s ancient publicist, who I haven’t seen in 20 years, said last night that he hadn’t seen the movie with a good-sized, fairly random audience–and this was a serious, not a glitsy crowd–and he was surprised that there was laughter, that the sporadic moments of humor, part of the humanity in the story, really hit. He shouldn’t have been, because Spielberg is good at that kind of thing. It also shows that Spielberg remains profoundly detached from audience testing, which is an ongoing marvel in itself. One of the best parts of the film is the way that it captures the famous folksiness of Lincoln, which is perfectly well-measured against the seriousness of the moment and his mission. As a historical drama the film is weighty and portentous and effective; as a character study it is deep and rounded and warm and humane. It’s easy to read volumes into Spielberg’s view of fathers and sons and his own relationships and work in this film; it’s as transparent and meaningful as ever, Dickensian once again.
But the FUN part is that Spielberg here goes to the greatest weapon in his arsenal, on a heretofore unforeseen level. I had no intention or thought of writing about this movie last night after I saw it, but I’m in pretty good compository form myself at the moment, and I woke up, earlier than I have been lately, with a thought and perspective and insight that served as a prompt. Spielberg put an alien in this movie. At dawn today it was obvious to me, as obvious as the cinematic fact of E.T., paired with Yoda, back at the beginning of the blockbuster era. A lot of the interest in the film is focused on the performance of Daniel Day Lewis, working in this story, playing this character, working with this filmmaker. And the fact is that “Daniel Day Lewis,” if he exists in the real world at all, isn’t human, he isn’t like the rest of us–he’s an alien. There are a few dozen very recognizable actors in this heavily populated film, and it’s fun to recognize them as they pass by–hey look, it’s Glen the chemist from Breaking Bad, with a big role as a congressman; there’s Lena Dunham’s intense boyfriend from Girls playing a telegraph operator, not a weirdo; and that’s Lane Pryce from Mad Men, reborn after his suicide with an American accident, playing Ulysses S. Grant. Sally Field–how do you like me now?–gets to mix it up, though we guess that Sister Gidget Bertrille doesn’t do depression and madness quite like Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt notches a late arrival, David Straithern hangs out, griping masterfully, and Tommy Lee Jones, very familiar with aliens from MIB, gets the plum role of well-meaning curmudgeion, set on 11, that he can do either asleep or awake, however you want it. And the whole time, with all of these actors going by, in perfectly composed and paced scenes, I was thinking wow, it’s a really good thing that Abraham Lincoln is in this movie, because it might not work otherwise. There’s no Daniel Day Lewis, only Lincoln. Every other character is played by an actor, many of them wonderful, acting with, of all people, Abraham Lincoln.
The first time we see him he’s listening to a group of soldiers after a bravura and upsetting, brilliantly staged, mucky, mano-a-mano battle, which has nary an Omaha Beach wide-shot, and no pinging bullets, just gruesome hand-to-hand slaughter, horrible. Lincoln is sitting, raised up on a platform, in a scene that’s more than a bit fraught and stagey, and we think really, is this how it’s going to be? A lot of the audience will give up there, unfortunately. Lincoln is rickety, stiff and composed, halting, patient, and more than anything he’s like the old Lincoln automaton at Disneyland: it’s as if that’s how Spielberg wanted to present the origin of his central character, a figure we know well from childhood myth. He ain’t human, that’s for sure, he’s not like anybody else, he’s not like us. There’s no Daniel Day Lewis, there’s just this thing, this Lincoln, stiff and barely moving. It’s a Disney Touchstone movie, and the filmmaker remembers the power of bringing Pinocchio to life. I came out of the film saying that there’s an alien in the movie, that the Daniel Day Lewis thing is uncanny and utterly amazing, an obvious big part of what makes the film great, and even transcendent. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized what it meant and how it functions in the film, how extraordinary and perhaps intentional it is. Lincoln, more than anything, is like E.T., as it turns out, or a shark for that matter, with plenty of Yoda as well–he moves deliberately, he cocks his head, he’s a man apart, his power resides in the untold depths of his singular humanity, so profound and spiritual we can barely imagine it, he rides the Force through a dark hour, alone. Spielberg takes that rickety amusement park icon and brings him to life, telling his story on an intimate, broadly stretched canvas, with complete mastery, confidence, and maturity. What Daniel Day Lewis is doing, I really couldn’t say. It’s beyond description. We were sitting around yesterday, before I saw the film, talking about it, cronies saying that the movie will be boring, hard work, and you’ll only see it once. But one of my partners said, “what I want to know is what Daniel Day Lewis does between movies. You never see him, you never hear about him, he disappears.” He makes shoes, we said, he’s a cobbler, right? Doing his own Gepetto thing maybe? But he’s not just making shoes all day. He’s married to Arthur Miller’s daughter, a film director. We don’t know what he does, but he’s not like you and me. This is perhaps the most amazing performance I have ever seen, beyond convincing, beyond acting as we know it. Having the real Abraham Lincoln in the movie, hanging out with his folksy patience, listening to his stories, eventually digging into his far-seeing, Hawkeye gaze, is powerful stuff, and damn fun. Maybe it makes it worth seeing for everyone, even if it’s work. I loved it. And Spielberg is a good dude, a good egg, and he’s done great work here, once again. As with Lincoln, he’s one for the ages, and we will not see his like, and movies like this one, again.