A Tribute To Roger Ebert and 2012 Films
Part 1: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln
Ten years ago this April Roger Ebert passed away. I have made little secret of the fact that he was one of the greatest influences on my writing and one of the reasons I leaned so hard into criticism as a field.
When Roger Ebert died, it was the end of an era. He was one of the few critics who tried to take what was a field that was reserved mostly for scholars of cinema and make it accessible to the masses. His fellow critics crucified him for this decision, as well as his partnership with Gene Siskel for more than two decades in public television and syndication. To try and make criticism accessible to the ordinary person was something many of his fellow critics considered sacrilege. But for nearly half a century, he did far more to make the world of films more accessible to the public and to interact with his audience. There is a solid argument that film criticism has more or less collapsed as a field since he left us far too soon: it is now so much of a product of the internet age that everyone is considered an unofficial one and those who still practice it as a field are far too often perceived (justifiably in many cases) as elitist snobs who believe that cinema that can be seen by the masses is an argument that it is horrible, something that Ebert never prescribed to before at least seeing the film. (I have a feeling that critics like David Denby write their reviews before they see any film released in the summer and then edit it to include the title and stars.) Ebert was a lover for foreign and small independent films to be sure, but he did not dismiss the blockbuster movie or the comic book movie outright. I have frequently wondered what he might think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the final Star Wars Trilogy.
Because he passed away early in 2013, what would have been his 2014 movie yearbook, which would have covered almost every film that was on his top ten list, was never published. For many reasons, not the least of which I feel very strongly that particular year was one of the last very good years for cinema in any form we have had since, I have decided to write this series partially in tribute to that year and partially to tribute to Ebert. I don’t know what his opinions were of some of the films I will be reviewing — it would not take much work to find out — but in this case, I want to stand on my own merits and add my own opinions. So I’ll end with this tribute to one of my idols: it was a pleasure reading your work and watching you speak. And when you passed away, the balcony was closed for good.
I will begin this series with a tribute to one of my favorite films of all time.
There are so many great things to admire about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — the importance of the subject in general, how he and Tony Kushner told a story that we needed to know more than we thought, the superb level of the performance, writing and of course, direction. But I’d like to start with one of the parts of the movie that appeals the most to me — how incredibly accurate historically this movie was.
This was not the movie, I should mention that, Spielberg and Kushner had in mind when they began the project: eventually the screenplay became so long that Spielberg actually considered turning into a limited series for cable. Considering how superb some of the limited series that he helped produced for HBO were — particularly Band of Brothers and The Pacific — one can only posit what he might have done had he been willing to devote a similar treatment to one of the most signature figures in history. Instead, the decision was made to focus on the last four months of Lincoln’s term, the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives.
In a way, by doing so Abraham Lincoln is far less important to the story that unfolds during the film. Paradoxically, though, I actually think Spielberg made a far more interesting picture as a result. Because by making Lincoln not the sole focus of the film, he chose to put at the center of a series of figures that would almost certainly never gotten their due in art or beyond the field of history, even though many of them are as fascinating as Lincoln, if not more so.
Perhaps the best example of this is the portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens. One of the so-called Radical Republicans Stevens is one of those figures whose political leanings these days would be impossible to categorize. What you can’t deny is the ‘Radical’ part of his leanings because that is what Stevens was. If Lincoln was ahead of his time on most political subjects, Stevens was even further ahead of Lincoln and was frequently frustrated with his ‘dawdling’ on the subject of slavery.
Tommy Lee Jones gives one of his greatest performances as Stevens. The layman might well think much of Jones’ work is simply chewing the scenery if you did not know that Kushner and Jones are basically giving you a toned-down version of the man in private and public. His utter disdain for his fellow politicians (a scene where he completely keeps ‘misremembering’ a freshman Democrats name while the poor Congressman barely has the nerve to correct him is a comic highlight of the movie) is one of those areas that he actually was bipartisan. There is a wonderful scene where Lincoln calls Stevens into a private meeting in the White House and Stevens has nothing but disparagement for the leader of his party and the President of the United States. “I lead,” he tells him at one point. “You should try it some time.”
This is in fact exactly how Stevens viewed Lincoln as well as how much he wanted to eradicate slavery from the Constitution as well as a complete and ‘unvarnished view of Reconstruction.’ In an era where respect on the floor of Congress was not even a myth, Stevens seems to relish putting down everyone of his fellow representatives. Some might wonder why he shows such relish for going after Democrat George Pendleton: Pendleton was a ‘Copperhead’ (he believed in peace with the South at any price) and his presence on the Democratic Presidential Ticket the year before was a red flag that if the Democrats won (as many expected them to do for much of the year) he would have been fine letting the South secede.
Jones’ greatest moment in the movie, in my opinion, comes when the press is gathered in the galleries with the full purpose of witnessing Stevens’ say what he has said for years: he believes in complete racial equality, something that went too far even for some abolitionists. He has been urged by leadership to be silent, but when he is barbed by an ally of Pendleton, there is a long pause where it looks like he is about to ‘come to full boil’. He starts to speak, pauses, and says in a mild tone: “I don’t believe in equality in all things. Only in equality before the law and nothing more.” The Democrats continue to bait him for two minutes, and after Pendleton begins to shame him, Stevens’ snaps and completely insults Pendleton as a human being but never blinks from his position. The Majority Leader almost weeps in relief, but after Stevens leaves the floor one of his most ardent followers expresses his utmost disappointment to his idol. Stevens makes it very clear he will do anything in his power ‘to make sure the only mention of slavery in our constitution is its eradication.”
If it were only for the portrayal of Stevens in this film, Lincoln would have earned its place as one of the most historically accurate movies in history. But Kushner and the cast make this clear in every historical figure who has a role in the movie, both in their philosophies and behavior. David Strathairn is superb as Secretary of State Seward, trying to negotiate an end to the war but who can not comprehend Lincoln’s design to get the 13th Amendment passed. The late Hal Holbrook is wonderful as Francis Blair, one of the founders of the Republican party whose price for the absolute loyalty of his followers is that he goes to Richmond to try and negotiate an end to the war. (Blair has no illusions as to his actions — “I went to Richmond to make peace with traitors’ he tells Lincolns after the trip — but he is exhausted by the war and he does not want battle to resume after the spring thaw.) Bruce McGill is exceptional as Edwin Stanton, the dyspeptic and exhausted Secretary of War who can not deal with his bosses anecdotes at critical moments of battle. And Jared Harris has only a few scenes as then General Grant, but he makes all of them count. I’m not sure he would have actually said what he did to the Vice President of the Confederacy (“There’s only one country’ he tells them. “…I’m fighting to protect it from armed rebels. From you.”) but Grant was very clear that he thought the cause the South was fighting for was the worst ever conceived and this is as good a way to make it clear as possible.
To this point, I have excluded the work of Daniel-Day Lewis in the title role. Is there truly anything left to say about it by now? From the moment the announcement of the film was made, it was practically a foregone conclusion in the minds of critics that this would make him the first Actor to win three Academy Awards for Best Actor and indeed it did. And there’s little point expressing just how well he disappears into the role of Lincoln, a man that we know from the history books and on our currency and everything else in America yet somehow seem not to know enough. And honestly, was anyone truly surprised that Day-Lewis was incredible in his role? For more than thirty years he may have been on the short-list for one of the two or three best actors working. I think I may very well have seen every one of his movies (as I will explain there are fewer than you’d think) and with the possible exception of his attempt in a musical in the disastrous adaptation of Nine, I honestly don’t remember a performance where your eyes aren’t drawn to him the minute he appeared on screen.
The reason he may never have gotten his full due is because his career in cinema was (I really hope we’re not using that as the past tense) briefer than many of us hoped it would be. From the time of his debut in a major role (1984’s The Bounty) he was only a lead actor in fourteen movies. He’d been quietly amazing critics with his work in My Beautiful Launderette, Room With A View and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (all minor or major masterpieces) before he stunned the world with his breakthrough performance in My Left Foot which deserved earned him first Academy Award and nomination.
There was a period where he worked fairly steadily and most of his films were brilliant — The Age of Innocence, In the Name of The Father, the undervalued adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and The Boxer. But after making the last film in 1997, for which he received another Golden Globe nomination, he didn’t make another film for five years when he played Bill The Butcher in Gangs of New York.. Three years later, he started in the little seen The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which was written and directed by his wife Rebecca Miller. After that he made four films in twelve years: There Will Be Blood, Nine, Lincoln and The Phantom Thread, which he said after making it would be his last movies. So in a career of what amounted to fifteen movies, he received six Oscar nominations (winning three) two Golden Globes, three SAG Awards (which only began in 1994, remember) five BAFTA awards for Best Actor and too many other critics’ awards to list here. Imdb.com, which gives a list for the number of nominations and awards an actor or work of art receives list 148 wins for Day-Lewis, aside from his three Oscars.
Proportionately speaking, Day-Lewis may very well be the most awarded actor in history. That does not necessarily make him the greatest, but it sure as hell makes him one that both critics and his peers respected. With good reason. Consider his work as Lincoln. I remember some critics degrading the portrayal of the title character as ‘saintly.’ I couldn’t comprehend that for a moment consider almost the entire film is about just how devious and conniving Lincoln is willing to be to get what he wants. In an early monologue before his cabinet he explains very clear exactly why he wants the Thirteenth Amendment passed because he does not think the Emancipation Proclamation is strong enough to withstand judicial review. When he finishes his speech he says: “As the preacher said, I could make shorter sermons if I remembered to stop.” When one of his cabinet makes it clear in his process that he sounds like the dictator the Democrats accused of him and asks him what gives the right, he says: “The people, I reckon.” And says his reelection the previous November is the justification he thinks he has to go forward.
He also keeps trying to use the threat of the Thirteenth Amendment as a cudgel to negotiate a Confederate peace, while keeping the idea of the latter to himself much to the dismay of Seward and everyone when they learn of it. These maneuvers cause a lot of damage to him in the political arena — and nearly as much with his family.
The accuracy of the historical portrayal extends to that of Mary Todd Lincoln. Sally Field hits the right notes all the way through the movie. Mary Lincoln had a horrific life, struggled with her sanity throughout it (she eventually was institutionalized for good after her husband’s assassination) and her loyalty was questioned by many because of her family’s ties to the Confederacy. (At times you can here Mary’s southern drawl slip in.) During her time in the White House Willie Lincoln passed away, something the film pays reference to in a crucial scene. Many have questioned whether Abraham ever truly loved his wife. At a critical juncture, the two scream at each other with all of their emotions lay bare as Mary shouts how much she loathes being used by her husband as a prop and Abe says his wife’s ‘bottomless grief’ never truly allowed him to mourn their son’s death. A similar scene comes into play when Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, barely recognizable) returns home and demands that he be allowed to serve in uniform, something not even seeing the wreckage of a battlefield hospital dissuades him from and righteous anger. Mary is infuriated by this as well. (Robert Todd’s life would be marked by bad fortune; he would be present at or near the deaths of James Garfield and William McKinley, both of whom also died from assassin’s bullets.)
Lincoln finally snaps near the end of the movie when he is told of the futility of getting the votes he needs for the amendment. In a scene where he erupts in full fury at some of his closest advisors, berating all of their ‘petty grievances’ and just how important it is to end slavery. There have been many in recent years who have doubt whether Lincoln was ‘squishy’ on his desire to end his slavery. The monologue given in this segment makes it very clear his true feelings. Those who argue dramatic license clearly haven’t done their homework on Lincoln or this particular era of history.
Lincoln is another one of those films that, if anyone but Spielberg had directed it, it would be regarded as that director’s masterpiece. Because there is little example of the ‘Spielberg flourishes’ that many expect of him (we see very few signs of war or shots that are demonstrative of ‘Spielberg being Spielberg’ one might be inclined to dismiss it as a lesser film. But this film continued a trend that Spielberg had been pursuing in this century, focusing in some films not so much on stylistic flourishes but rather real human stories. His first collaboration with Kushner, the controversial but still brilliant Munich was the first movie in this series; other films in this style include the equally remarkable (and similarly historically accurate) Bridge of Spies in 2015 and The Post in 2017.
Kushner also deserves full credit for his work; there is an argument that he may be the best writer Spielberg has ever worked with. After this, they worked together on the remake of West Side Story and this year’s The Fabelmans; all of which would earn both Spielberg and Kushner Academy Award nominations. If there is a common theme in their collaborative works (at least in the first three films) it is about tackling some of the most controversial issues that still plague us today. This is clear in all of the work, but particularly in Lincoln where most of the work is being done by two lower level machine politicians (James Spader and John Hawkes were superb) trying to convince Democrats to vote against their interests and constituencies to do the right thing. These efforts nearly get one of them killed and many of these politicians reject their efforts despite constant bribing but when the vote comes to the floor, many of the ones who have been the biggest holdouts spit in the face of their parties in the idea of a common cause. (Spielberg deliberately made sure his movie did not get released until December of 2012, so that it could not be construed as trying to influence that year’s election.) In that sense, this film is not so much about Lincoln but about the way politics were back then and how hard it has always been to get politicians to ever work behind partisan or even hew to party loyalty. Many of Lincoln’s own Republicans do not trust him throughout the run of the movie and perhaps his real gift was in persuading them without persuading them.
Spielberg chooses to end the movie after Lincoln has died with him giving his second inaugural address which include the famous lines: “With malice towards none, with charity towards all.” In many ways higher praise are spoken in the final scene Stevens has. He returns to his home where his housekeeper — and his longtime companion — an African-American woman is waiting. He hands her the recently passed amendment: “A gift for you. The greatest legislation of the 19th century. Passed by corruption and aided by the purest man in America.” Spielberg and Kushner could not have done a better job summarizing the action, what resulted from it, and what a man who could never say these words in public or even pass on to his supporters, truly thought of Lincoln.