Thursday, 22 November 2012

Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

With Tony Kushner writing your script, it’s no wonder that Lincoln feels at times like a stage play carried to the screen. It relies on lively dialogue to tell the little-known story of the Thirteenth (abolition of slavery) Amendment at least as much as on its sometimes predictable imagery. That’s not really a criticism, and the two-hour-plus film is more engrossing than a standard biopic would have been especially on such an over-examined and profoundly unknowable life.

Lincoln keeps its focus narrow and lets us see a lot of the secondary characters like Tommy Lee Jones as the radical (Republican, no less) Thaddeus Stevens, David Straithorn as Seward, and many others in the surprisingly raucous Congress and among Lincoln’s inner circle. The portrayals, including Daniel Day Lewis, of course, are nuanced and convincing. (Prepare to hear about their Oscar chances for the next six months.) The Confederates and their sympathizers get a rounded treatment as well, including a watery-eyed Alexander Stephens, the CSA vice president trying to salvage a deal for the South as the war goes against them.

Considering the central issue being discussed and fought over, however, it’s at least curious that household servants, life-long freedmen and recently liberated slaves in the film are generally ciphers. At the film’s opening, a black enlistee speaks up boldly (and rather incredibly) to the visiting prez, Mary Lincoln’s maid is given several bodice-heaving moments of high emotion, and a Greek chorus of well-dressed Negroes in the House gallery is introduced to cheer and weep at the passage of the amendment at the end. Lincoln has a manservant who gets a few lines, and other black figures flit across the screen here and there.

None of them, however, ever gels into a full-fledged character. They remain stock figures and are largely interchangeable. It’s ironic that in a film that hinges on how the nation will consider its African descendants, none of its representatives ever achieves full personhood.

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