Sunday, December 9, 2012

Study of greatness

Writing in The New York Times about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, David Brooks said: “The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way. It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical…The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning.”

Lincoln and Ford

Now, I saw Lincoln in the same week that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was booted out of office (I know, I know, it’s the ultimate bastardization of good taste to cite Abraham Lincoln and Rob Ford in the same sentence) and I couldn’t help engaging in the absurdist mental exercise of applying Brooks’ comments to our wretched, uh, leader (given the ongoing appeal process, I can’t quite yet commit to saying ex-leader, much as I’d like to). Ford is certainly a hypocritical bamboozler of stained character, but the issue of “willingness” is beside the point – he’s driven entirely by his narrow, gloatingly ignorant instincts, which some see as a mark of authenticity.

I suppose he’s sincere about “respect for taxpayers,” insofar as he perceives the phrase (there’s little evidence that Ford’s understanding of common terms corresponds to that of normally literate people), but he lacks any useful sense of political power as a commodity that can be shaped and managed and deployed. What most offends about his obsession with his football team is that he honestly thinks it’s virtuous to spend a big chunk of his time on that tiny number of “kids,” even though he’s sought and obtained power over and responsibility for the well-being of several million people: it sums up a failure of perception and applied morality that, in his circumstances, makes him simply odious.

Equality in all things

 Anyway, Lincoln focuses on the President’s efforts, early in his second term, with the Civil War in its death throes, to pass his proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution, formally abolishing slavery. With Senate approval already obtained, success or failure comes down to the House of Representatives, and specifically on winning over a number of the lame-duck Democrats who initially oppose the bill. Some of the Amendment’s supporters do so as a matter of principle, others because they see it as a lever to ending the war; some advocate waiting for peacetime, but Lincoln believes the issue of slavery must be settled before post-war reconstruction. This mass of conflicting motives and perspectives creates the backdrop for what Brooks describes, where achieving this worthiest of goals depends on a wide array of tricks and tactics, some of them only ethical with reference to a calculation of the ends justifying the means.

One of the film’s key moments in this regard comes when a key ally of Lincoln’s stands up on the House floor to deny his deeply-held belief in racial equality, knowing that the bill’s success depends on sticking to softer rhetoric. “I do not hold in equality in all things, only in equality before the law,” he repeats, and when his opponents accuse him of lying, he explodes at them, asking (in volcanically colourful terms) how he could possibly believe in the equality of all things, when faced with people who constitute the lowest possible examples of mankind. In such scenes, Lincoln is simultaneously at its most entertaining and most morally complex, illustrating the murky nature of expressed “truth” and its intertwining with strategy and positioning. Some have found the film somewhat boring, but I was riveted by it throughout.  

As you can see though, and in common it seems with many political commentators, I’m taken by it largely for its effectiveness as a critical reference point for our own times. That’s not necessarily a major qualification – there seems to me little point in watching any movie about the past, except insofar as it may in some way inform our present. But as a study of Abraham Lincoln, the film seems constantly hampered by Spielberg’s adherence to the Great Man approach to history. True, he largely avoids the epic trappings of battlefields and grand vistas – one of the film’s most appealing qualities is its intimacy, its depiction of a Presidency much more closely rooted in the streets and the people than we’ll ever see again. But the film frequently feels more interested in creating handsomely iconic moments than in trying to convey the texture of a real time and place. As Jonathan Rosenbaum put it: “Surely Lincoln and his cohorts didn’t experience their everyday surroundings as if they were silhouettes in a pretentiously underlighted art movie, but this Lincoln and these cohorts do.” Also, I’ve almost never mentioned a film’s music in any of my articles here, but the fact that I was distractingly aware at several points of John Williams’ score for Lincoln didn’t work to the film’s benefit.

Terrible things

For similar reasons, I’m a bit less sure about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln than the consensus (which has basically already given him the Oscar) would have it. Day-Lewis certainly seems like the Lincoln we’ve always been waiting to see on the screen, but did the real man really behave as if Doris Kearns Goodwin was lying in wait at every moment? In this regard I’d agree with Rosenbaum again that “Spielberg’s storytelling gifts…often depend on a ruthless catering to what we already think we know about a given subject.” At various points I wished the film had been made instead by someone with a greater relish for chaos and productive myth, like the late Robert Altman: it would  no doubt have been odder and harder to follow, but would also have been less of a pre-judged tribute, more of a true exploration.
Still, the film is much stronger than Spielberg’s entirely pointless version of War Horse, full of fascinating moments, and conveying something viscerally compelling about the darkness at the heart of America in those times, and the despair in Lincoln’s own heart. “We’ve made it possible for one another to do terrible things,” he says to General Grant near the end, expressing Brooks’ point at its extreme, how leadership requires embracing cruelty far beyond the parameters of normal life. Obama has seen the film, and views it, according to his press secretary as “both an excellent movie and a vivid reminder that our 16th president was not just a brilliant orator and statesman but a masterful politician.” Going back to the terrible things we’ve done, one might counsel Rob Ford to see the film, and yet there seems little chance of him being able to follow it even on a cursory level, let alone extracting any higher insight from it.

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