"The Definition of Insanity is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results" - Albert Einstein

Thursday, February 14, 2013

So Many Epics of American Slavery, So Little Time: Part 1

It turns out that this is the year of Best Picture pairs. A few weeks ago Mind The Gap reviewed “Battle: Arab’s Hate America” and today’s installment is “Battle: White Man’s Guilt” starring Lincoln and Django Unchained.

This could alternatively be titled “Battle: What You See in the Trailer is What You Get for Three Hours.” These films have essentially two things in common: They are about slavery and they are long. Like an hour too long each. Like longer than it took to end slavery (just kidding, nothing is that long).

I may be the only one thinking this, but neither film was particularly complex, and I felt like in both cases I could have watched the trailer and basically gotten the gist of the film (but more on that later). 

Lincoln is by all accounts the front-runner at the Academy Awards. It has everything you expect the “best” picture of the year to have:

A-List “Serious” Actors: If there is one thing that is great about Lincoln, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis. He breathes so much life into a President that many Americans don’t know more than that he was tall and “freed the slaves” (which is a debatable factoid as is). He’s compelling and charming as Honest Abe, but not in any way that could be deemed a caricature. DDL makes it believable that the same man could command the White House with his mere presence and still manage to tell a joke that centers on how the English shit. I’d like to see Obama try and tell a joke that revolves around pants-crapping. No subtext. 

Also: They look A LOT alike.

It's like Goofus and Gallant

Sally Field is great as Mary Todd, who walks the line between a grieving mother and the mentally ill, and still manages to make herself someone I feel sorry for. She’s really in a hard place because it can’t be easy to be married to the most dynamic man alive, and have him ignore you unless you are saying something nice to him.

Maybe this is just my outer feminist talking, but in one scene of the film, Mary is in a fit of sadness/rage/psychosis and is yelling about her dead son William, and she criticizes Abe for not caring about William, and only caring about the youngest son and ignoring the oldest son, and Abe’s response is:

“Really Mary, I’ve got things to do and I don’t have time to deal with you being hysterical right now. My emotions are really complex and you wouldn’t understand, so I won’t even try to explain it because your feeble woman-mind probably would just get confused. Also, I was sad in my own way, you just didn’t ‘get it’ because I didn’t say anything about it, or cry, or try to comfort you or be supportive, which is your fault.” 

Just so we are clear: This is what Lincoln looks like on the outside:

But this is what he feels like on the inside: 

Poor Mary Todd. She really can’t catch a break. But let’s all hope Sally Field can catch herself an Oscar. Because Anne Hathaway will totally have more chances to win them, and Les Mis really wasn’t that great. 

Maybe I wouldn't be so grumpy if I was going to win the Oscar...

I'm sorry that people are so jealous of me, But I can't help it that I'm popular. 

For me though, the best performance in Lincoln is Tommy Lee-Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Maybe I just like him because everyone likes Lincoln and Thaddeus is one of America’s greatest bad-asses, and never gets the recognition he deserves. Or maybe it’s because he is the only character with an actual struggle of character to face. Lincoln’s struggle is political, but it’s not like it falls on his morality. 

You Can't Caucus With Us!

Thaddeus is faced with a choice of disavowing his personal beliefs for a political cause he isn’t sure is the right course, or being made to suffer the consequences of saving his reputation and possibly destroying African American suffrage. And when his sacrifice turns into political victory, my heart soared. Not like it soared at the end of Argo, but like close-ish. 

That is so not right.

“Important” Historical Subject Matter: People on both sides of the aisle love to wax poetic about America’s 16th Commander in Chief. Not that I have a beef with Lincoln as a President or Person; I just have a beef with waxing poetic about anything. Spielberg might as well be Mr. Miyagi.

Like, Oh My God! Lincoln was all like 'Four Score and something whatever' and I was like, That is So Fetch!

If there is one thing American’s love, it is their own Americana. And Lincoln is more American than Apple Pie, Hot Dogs and pretending like we know how to use the fireworks we bought in Indiana all put together.

Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to say that Lincoln was a bad President. All I am trying to say is that I doubt his years in office were as hunky-dory and black and white as the film makes us believe. The film does a decent job of portraying Lincoln’s inner conflict between ending the war and freeing the slaves as a dichotomy, but watching the film in the 21st century grants us the hindsight he didn’t have. We already know he makes the “right” choice to worry about slaves before worrying about a peace treaty because we know he will get both. He didn’t know that, and it would be interesting to see a film where maybe Lincoln had some more push-back. Most of the senators in this film think he’s overly ambitious, but that he is ultimately doing the right thing. Even those who oppose the choice to focus on Emancipation over Peace felt he had the “right” idea in terms of morality. I doubt this was the case at the time. I would have liked to have seen more people really challenging him. 

We do get one very interesting scene in Lincoln, where Abe rides through the battlefield/graveyard following his decision to stall the Confederate delegation, postponing peace in favor of policy. The sadness and horror registers on his face; that all of the dead bodies that day should fall on his conscience. Spielberg tries to remedy this in our conscience with a victory of ending slavery, but it seems a strange ending for a film that started off with shots of men strangling each other in the mud and stomping on their opponents faces. 

I hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but anyone who took US History in High School should know that the Civil War wasn’t really fought about slavery. It was fought over the legitimacy of State’s Rights versus the power of the Federal Government, and the South’s “Right” to continue their economy, which was built on the trading of people, AKA slaves. Not that it wasn’t important to free the slaves, because I totally agree, slavery is wrong. But the main reason people in the South wanted to keep slavery was more because they didn’t want to pay workers, not because they thought black people were inferior beings. They just incidentally thought that they were.

Which leads me to my next point…

Relevant Present-Day Parallels: It is absolutely impossible to watch Lincoln without seeing our current society in every scene. In the opener, Lincoln talks to a young African American who is calm and civilized, and clearly honored to be conversing with the President. Then two white boys run up and blabber about seeing Abe at Gettysburg and try to recite his speech like buffoons. Naturally Lincoln is polite as can be, but when he leaves, the young African American recites the speech perfectly. It sort of screams, America Will Have a Black President Someday!  

For Real?

But to me what was an even more interesting parallel was the struggle Lincoln faced with a divided Congress that was unwilling to work with him, who were also essentially fighting about an economic issue. And how did they get their Amendment passed? Through bribery, manipulation, and dirty politicking. Thank Goodness America hasn’t changed that much since 1865.

Despite all of these things, the film just isn’t very interesting. And it is really long! I was never surprised, or intrigued while watching it. I mean it’s not like I’m expecting to see anything new, it’s a Spielberg film and it looks like Spielberg films. It’s the same plot I remember from US History class, and the ending isn’t really a shocker.

I love Steven Spielberg, but he may have passed his prime a little bit. Everything he seems to be making now is just a competent, vanilla version of the same thematics he’s been doing for years. War is still bad. Lincoln was a good guy. But I probably could have grasped that in about an hour and a half.

Part 2, AKA My Review of Django Unchained is coming soon!

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