November 28, 2012

Lincoln as Grand Opera

a review of Lincoln by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a film that will likely stand the test of time: a splendid script, well acted and well filmed, with a weighty subject and important themes. But beyond that it has the stamp of art about it; ironically, in my opinion, less the cinematic than the operatic. This is a film of arias, duets, trios, and choruses; a film that relishes the richness of language, indeed about people who relished the richness of language and were not afraid to speak in long sentences with polysyllabic cadences and periods that clunked down at the end to make a point with no misunderstanding possible: the ponderous solemnity of sober speech as well as the rollicking ribaldry of pungent insult. These were people suckled on the twin teats of Shakespeare and Cranmer, and the film shows off their language to good effect.

The actors are all up to the performance of these roles; Daniel Day-Lewis is the leading tenor hero alternately performing the comic aria and the solemn recitative. Sally Field portrays the complex female lead, a sorely tried and trying woman with the humility of Hyacinth Bucket, the rhetoric of Foghorn Leghorn, and the emotional stability of Bill the Cat. Her verbal duel with the baritone, Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Stevens, is an acid-etched example of the most polite and politic vitriol, razors sheathed with smiles. Jones chews the rich language placed in his mouth like a fine malt, and clearly enjoys every nuanced syllable. The operatic analogy cannot pass without notice of David Strathairn’s Seward, the standard baritone “best friend” of the leading tenor, loyal to the end.

A dramatic high point in the film is the duet between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln caught in the dilemma created by their son Robert’s desire to serve in the military. They are each in their own world, talking past each other simultaneously — the high-minded idealism of the president crashing in a restless wave of words against the impassioned anchored anguish of a mother already bereft of two sons and unwilling to lose a third. At the end of the scene, the defeated woman collapses like Violetta into her crinolines in a visible gesture of resignation and grief as powerful and evocative as the plunge of a white satin Hindenburg.

Not since Orson Welles have we seen such exercises in fugal dialogue as in this scene and another in which young Thomas Lincoln, also known as Tad (because he looked like a tadpole when he was a baby), prattles on while the adult conversation continues around him. Gulliver McGrath is splendid in the role, and provides what I found one of the most moving, and historically accurate, moments, reacting to the news of his father’s death; for he was also at the theater the night Lincoln was shot — in a different theater, watching an Arabian adventure unfold on the stage. Spielberg’s choice not to show the assassination but to allow us to hear of it as little Tad did, indeed as most of the nation did, secondhand, is a wonderful example of his artist’s delicacy — the cinematic equivalent of a mot juste, not unlike the red coat in Schindler’s List, a film also echoed in Robert’s following a barrow of amputated limbs to see them summarily disposed of in a lime pit. Even were it not for the high-flying language, this would not be a film for children.

Another reason this film will endure is the strong political message it sends, a timely one at that. It is a political world that is also a deeply personal world — this was before corporations were thought of as people. It reminds us that the body politic is made up of individual people. It moves from the writhing, entangled bodies of the opening battle scene, a sea of blue and gray — and red — to the political battle of Congress, and the unique individual people who make it up, each and every vote counting. These too are people who in the day of decision ventured much; one might even say that decision-making is at the heart of what this film is about — a theme not at all foreign to Spielberg’s best and most serious work, echoing the powerful sentiment of Hillel and Private Ryan both, concerning the worth of each individual life. We see decisions played out not only by Lincoln and his wife and son, but the cast of Congressmen, some bought and sold, set at a price as were the slave children whose images young Tad pondered, others throwing caution to the wind as they cast a vote they know will cost them dearly. Michael Stuhlbarg, as George Yeaman, is particularly moving as he finds his voice.

If I were to fault the director on any point of this film it would have to be the ending. I had thought it might end with that long-lens shot of Lincoln walking down the hallway — after all we know how the story ends. But then we would have missed the superbly handled presentation of the assassination itself, reported by messenger as in the best Greek tragic tradition. And then I thought it might have ended with those famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Instead the director gives us Lincoln in a flame, an effect all too much like a Victorian faery photograph, or Lincoln as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and a snippet from an admittedly great speech. But it seems a false step to end in this way — and is a step away from the operatic form which had served so well up to that point. What, after all could be more operatic than the leading character lying dead surrounded by the other principal players, as the curtain falls on the closing chords?
Some will no doubt accuse me of quibbling at this point; and I will not say that this minor flaw undoes all that went before. Far from it; but in a film that is so nearly perfect a small flaw is all the more irking, particularly as it comes at the end.

This is a film that will last, and bear repeated viewings.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

Tobias, I waited and waited for your review, and it didn't come, so I wrote my own and published on the very same day as yours. Oh, woe is me. Your review is so superior, so much more imaginative and evocative, that it leaves me in a heap on the floor in despair, doubting whether I will ever again write a movie review.

All right, then, I'm up off the floor, and my despair has abated...somewhat. We come to the same conclusion: "Lincoln" is a must-see. ;-)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, dear Mimi. I shall head off to see what you said, post haste. (And aren't we both glad that creases press out of satin!)

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

I dearly want to see this film and if I miss it in the thyeater I will by the DVD as soon as it comes out.

(And I'm glad I'm not the only one who appreciates Bill the Cat. I have a stuffed Bill overlooking my computer desk.)

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

Wonderful review, Dear Tobias! I was particularly struck in the magnificent film with the portrayal of Lincoln as a contemplative leader -- a "philosopher king" to point back to our Platonic roots.

I adore the illumination of your operatic take!

One of my favorite scenes is Mrs. Lincoln cutting Thaddeus Marshall down to size -- the only moment he was truly left speechless. It reminded me of that Fawlty Towers episode where Basil opines that his wife can kill a man at ten paces with one lash off her tongue!

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

Oops. That should be Thaddeus Stephens, of course.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks Deacon C and Brother RE!

emeritus said...

Thanks Tobias. A fascinating take indeed. I saw the film last weekend. You do catch its essence.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

You're welcome, E. This is a very "rich" film with many access angles.