There may be no other South Park statement I disagree with more than when Kyle says (Season 8, Ep. 3: “The Passion of the Jew“) — very much sounding like the words are coming straight from Matt Stone’s mouth: “we watch movies to be entertained”. He’s referring to Mel Gibson’s slaughter fest about Christ, but it really does feel like that’s what Trey and him believe about all movies. That movies are entertainment, pure and simple. And once you cross over that line your movie turns to garbage. It’s this type of thinking that led to Orgazmo and Baseketball. That’s what happens when you reach no higher than entertainment alone.
I bring this up because last night I saw Lincoln, a film that somehow is caught in the middle of such a debate. A film about the political mechanizations of a two party system, and the struggle to get things done within that system. It should be boring. “Boring”. And it’s funny cause I’m reading a number of reviews that think it is boring, from “critics” and general public alike. They’re wrong, it isn’t boring. In fact, it tries really really hard not to be boring. That’s part of the problem. Why even include that opening Civil War scene? Looking back it seems grossly out of place. The film opens with an incredibly violent war scene between a “colored” regiment of The Union and a Confederate regiment in an all out brawl scene reminiscent of Gangs of New York. Bayonets are stabbed into bellies and before you can blink it’s over. This is probably included to further pad a scene late in the film when Lincoln is strolling through the remains of a battlefield before War’s end. But for the audience, it’s actually less of a shock because we’ve already seen the carnage, even if Abe hasn’t.
It may have been clever (well, I guess not that clever… more like serviceable) to bookend the movie with another horrific scene of violence in Lincoln getting assassinated. Two horrible and terrifying scenes to start and end the film, one with faceless soldiers dying in the muck, the other with the main character dying at a play in the nicest box-seats in the theater. Contrasting bookends. But that didn’t happen either, the film ends in another theater, where the Lincolns’ son Tad is watching another play, sitting in another box. And as the camera panned to the left, my wife and I both thought: “well this isn’t very historically accurate”. But it was all a red herring, and you’re left leaving the theater a little befuddled. It kinda feels like Spielberg is trying to fuck with as many different types of movie-goers as he can, and it turns into a meal someone kinda screwed up but it tastes okay so no one is too pissed but the food is really simple to begin with.
Structurally, it’s just sort of a mess. The “horror of the War” stuff is in there to make the “passage of the 13th” stuff feel secondary, and to make Lincoln seem all the more so wholly dedicated to the freedom of the slaves even to the detriment of thousands more lives. Scenes of Gordon-Levitt as Abe’s older son Robert outside a military hospital feel forced and crammed in, as do domestic scenes between Day-Lewis and Sally Field. Okay… holy crap Sally Field is really bad in this movie. Like, really really bad. And I know that Mary Todd Lincoln was probably bi-polar and suffered from migraines and had mental problems, but she doesn’t really play it that way. You don’t get the sense that those things exist really in that, 1) she doesn’t really play the character that sympathetically, and 2) you can just see it in her face that she’s of a level mind. This may have been the way she was written too, but she certainly does nothing to pull the character off the page and present a real, living, breathing tortured First Lady.
Day-Lewis is, of course, amazing as Lincoln. Everything from the way he walks, sits, writes, speaks, even the way he crawls feels like history in the flesh. Easily one of the best performances of the year. David Strathairn, who probably shares the most screen time with Abe, is almost as good as William Seward, a dedicated and brilliant Statesman from New York (who survived his own assassination attempt the night Lincoln got shot). In fact, the entirety of the cast is just brilliant. And rightfully so, as these are some of the best character actors working today. Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, David Costabile, Tim Blake Nelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, and on and on and on it goes. These performances are what really elevates this movie, without them it’d be just another terribly average period piece.
But hey at least I have new material when someone proposes that Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest directors of all-time… from now on I’m just going to say, “eternal-flame dissolve cut”. Equal bad marks should probably go to Tony Kushner — who’s strength is definitely dialogue (probably why he’s such a good playwright) — showing both a lack of creativity and screen-writing class working knowledge when it comes to structure. In the end, this movie might know what it is, but I hardly do.