Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lincoln (2012): All Tell and No Show

In a previous post I wrote about how I didn’t enjoy There Will Be Blood and partly that was due to Daniel Day-Lewis’ strange voice-acting. When I saw the trailer for Lincoln I thought there might be a similar problem in this film, but in fact I quite enjoyed his performance here. I hardly noticed anything strange about the way he sounded and also I didn’t find him too ‘monumental’. There were some other things to admire in Lincoln, for instance the final voting-scene, to which the whole film leads up to. It was well-staged. Unfortunately movie-making is a bit like cooking; it’s how you blend all the ingredients together that ultimately counts. You can use foods that individually taste great but if you mix them in the wrong way, or with other inferior ingredients, the final result will be unsatisfying.

Lincoln has two big problems. The first is that it’s 95% people talking in rooms. In other words, it’s not structurally well-conceived. It doesn’t have enough contrasts. What it needed was two or three major scenes, maybe ten minutes each, showing the war, to get the viewer out into the open, out of those smoky dark rooms, and break up the monotony of all that talk. If such scenes had been interspersed among the main narrative, then it might well have been a good film. They say cinema should ‘show, not tell’ but Lincoln is just tell, tell and more tell. Occasionally a film that is all people talking in rooms can succeed - think of 12 Angry Men or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - but for that you need vivid characters in direct, exciting, intriguing conflict, and Lincoln doesn’t have that. It has a clear narrative thread, that much cannot be disputed, but it’s all based around getting enough votes to pass an amendment in the House of Representatives (to abolish slavery, of course), and while the issue is a very emotive one, political maneuvers to get votes on that issue are not in themselves emotionally engaging.

Also, we don’t get enough of a clear idea of the people against the amendment. The parliamentary opposition, the Democrats (at the time Lincoln’s party, the Republicans, were the more liberal of the two) have one or two scenes making their objections heard in the House, but we don’t get to know any of them very well, and none of the well-known actors in the film (Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Hal Holbrook, David Straitharn, James Spader, John Hawkes) are on their side, so the fight is not fairly weighted in dramatic terms.  They say American actors don’t like to play baddies; that’s why British actors and other foreigners usually play those roles in American movies. I wish they’d had at least one well-known British actor on the Democrat bench in this film - someone with gravitas like Ian McKellan or Brian Cox.

As for the South, you’d think their opposition to the amendment might figure strongly in this story too, but no, it barely gets mentioned. Their existence in fact seems completely marginal to the film, so another opportunity is missed. The civil war itself is strangely absent from the narrative. All the characters are living through this tumultuous time and make reference to it but it seems to be happening a long way off in a foreign country. As I said, a few major scenes showing the war would have solved that problem, and put everything into perspective, but it, and Southerners in general, never become real for the viewer. All we have are a very brief scene of a battle right at the start and a few shots of the aftermath of a battle near the end. So a film set during the greatest internal conflict the US has ever known is somehow devoid of dramatic conflict. (There’s also a very interesting, beautifully-filmed dream-sequence at the start which briefly got my hopes up that this would be a weird, impressionistic portrait of Lincoln, but no such luck; the rest of the film is determinedly realistic and prosaic.)

The other big problem with the film is the way people talk. I guess we have to blame screenwriter Tony Kushner for that, but I’m surprised Spielberg didn’t do anything about this problem, because he’s usually good at having characters speak naturally and believably. Kushner’s Angels in America is a magnificent achievement (judging by the TV mini-series starring Meryl Streep and Al Pacino) so it’s strange that his work here is so clunky and undramatic. Speechifying may be fine when politicians have the floor in the House but here virtually every line every character says is a speech, or sounds like the start of a speech. Far too many sentences are ridiculously over-extended, with two or three sub-clauses. There’s no spontaneity. Everyone talks as if their words were being recorded for posterity. Even when Lincoln and his wife are having private conversations in their bedroom they announce their too well-thought-out ideas to each other. And it’s as if they’re saying at the end of every Homeric line: ‘Ok, now it’s your turn to speak.’ That may or may not be historically accurate. I somehow doubt it, but anyway it’s immaterial. What matters is that dramatically it doesn’t work. It’s tiring to listen to people talk in this formal, stilted manner for 2 ½ hours. It’s as if Kushner thought he was writing an academic history book, but someone should have told him that history books and films about history don’t succeed for the same reasons.   

I was surprised at how much I liked Spielberg’s last two films: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and War Horse. Both of them are superior to Lincoln. Here’s another ten Spielberg films which are far more worthy of your time: Duel, Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds and Munich.

PS It was interesting that when I checked this film on Rotten Tomatoes there were many critics saying this was one of Spielberg’s best, and many ordinary film-goers saying they were bored and unimpressed by it. I think this is one case where critics are defending the film because it’s literate and wordy and ‘intellectual’, but really those qualities count for nothing if it doesn’t work as drama.

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