Tuesday, April 14, 2015

April 14, 1865: Another Shot Heard 'Round the World

 April 14, 2015: 150 years since that Good Friday when Lincoln is shot in the head by an assassin. He will die in the early hours of April 15.  Some thoughts about Spielberg's film from 2012.

My Thanksgiving is always tied to three other events, two personal, one national: the birthdays of my brother and a dear friend; and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Because it's a fixed day not date, all 3 of these other events are sometimes on Thanksgiving itself, and always within the holidayness: JFK was murdered on November 22. The birthdays are the 24 & 25.

In 1963, Thanksgiving was on the last Thursday in the month, November 28, so it was not tangled into the national mourning, although John John's own third birthday, November 25, was the date of the State Funeral. But when the holiday was moved to the third Thursday, the assassination became a constant faint echo of great loss amid great Thanksgiving for those who listen.

I went to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln the day after Thanksgiving, and so it was caught up in the echo of the Kennedy assassination. It might be at any time, but the fate of the calendar underscored the experience. It reminded me of "the list" that first appeared in 1964 of noted coincidences between the two men, such as "Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who told him not to go to the theatre; Kennedy had a secretary named Evelyn Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas."

Some of the facts on the list have been debunked, but the there is still a psychic bond between these two gaping head wounds in our country's history.  It's much more of a connection than with the other two presidents who were assassinated—James Garfield, 1881, and William McKinley, 1901—whose murders go unheralded, certainly unfilmed.

Forced Modernism & Missing People
I was glad to see Lincoln, but I was not emotionally connected to it. Its strivings for the elegiac left me cold, and I'm generally a weeper where Lincoln is concerned. (Which was the case when I visited the Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield a few years ago.)

Tony Kushner is being lauded for the script, based on Doris Kearns Goodwins's book Team of Rivals. But I found it filled with forced exposition with an unnatural self-consciousness that pulled me out of the moments it was trying to build.

For instance:

Mary Lincoln says something like, "they'll only remember me for being crazy." Was Mary Lincoln that self-aware? At the end she says something like, "what would they say, a man taking his lady out for a carriage ride on Good Friday." Yes, it's good to remind people that Lincoln was shot on Good Friday (can the man be any more mystical?) but it sounds clunky to me.

I thought the soldiers quoting the Gettysburg address at the beginning was cheesy, extra cheesy that the black solider finishes the line.

The scene with the couple from Ohio? [I can't remember the state] asking about the toll road was overdone in hammering the point that Lincoln really wants to know the woman's opinion on the 13th Amendment "what do YOU think?" But as I said, I'm in the minority about the script.

On the other hand, there is lots of discussion about what historic figures were left out. For me, Frederick Douglas and no mention of Sherman are the top of the list (although I think the one huge conflagration we see for a few frames is the burning of Atlanta). But then, the "story" is so very complex, it couldn't be told if the focus wasn't narrowed, and that means missing people.

Meeting Lincoln. What Would Abe Do?
The thrill of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis. He is the Brady photos come to life, with the better angels of Lincoln's writings for flesh and blood.

Where I find the script is very strong is in telling the complex story of history so clearly. I'm sure there are differing opinions on every specific point, but that notwithstanding, it depicts what a master politician/manipulator the supreme legal eagle was. As others have noted, what seem to bother him most about the South seceding was that it was illegal, plain and simple. A nice recap of this point is from Adam Gopnik.

The part about "history" that fascinates me is that you don't get to tell any of the tidy versions of "history" until you are removed from elements by time.

I went to see the movie in Seaford, Long Island. It was a town badly hit by Sandy, and I wanted to contribute to its economy. On the ticket taker window was a postcard of the Twin Towers, with Never Forget. Five graduates of Seaford High School died in the towers, 3 in the NYFD, 2 in Cantor Fitzgerald. It took me back. I hadn't thought about 9/11 in a while, but it is our always present, living history.

How different would our recent history would have been if we had had a Republican leader the caliber of Lincoln in 2001. The mind reels.


SeanH said...

Nice read.

I agree, there was some Speilberg-ian exposition. But it was exposition that didn't flow w/ story structure.

What was great about Lincoln was that we watched a man lead by listening ... a lot. This is different than other films where leaders go about internalizing a problem they must solver and then they direct orders like a playground general.

One of my favorite scenes of Spielberg's filmography (spoiler-ish) is when he sits down with the two telegram boys and asks them for advice to make sure that his plan is the right coarse. He wasn't a man with all the answers but he found ways to get them. Hokey? Perhaps. Entertaining? Perhaps not. But it did the right things out of the ordinary biopic to make it special.

Ellen O'Neill said...

Thanks Sean. I like the way you describe Lincoln as listening.

Jean M Bsquared said...

Must say, I do think you are spot on about the film; yes re the script and other things.

Funny coincidence your also thinking about the Kennedy parallels as well.