Spielberg and the art of overemphasis
There is a sense of looking at something aloft, something distant in time, and noble, in the way Steven Spielberg has his long-time cinematographer and collaborator Janusz Kamiński shoot his new film Lincoln. It is not strictly the distance of a period drama because of speech, costume and art direction. It is in the way he has lit the film, and the script itself.
Spielberg’s gaze on the most exalted American public figure in history is that of a starry-eyed American—Abraham Lincoln, played intuitively and intelligently by Daniel Day-Lewis, is always seen in a light scheme different from the rest of the film; most of the time it is a halo effect. We have Lincoln’s greatness to thank, he seems to be urging his audience.
The eulogy is, of course, justified. Spielberg’s film is a tribute because it is after all Hollywood’s first serious biopic of Abe, as Lincoln is called in the US. Many other films have portrayed the leader, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a bigoted perspective of two families affected by the American Civil War of 1861.
When slavery was abolished in the US in 1865 through the 13th amendment to the American constitution, around which the film is set, the country got one of its most triumphant moments in history. Its long-standing reputation as a free land of opportunity rests, to a large extent, on this moment.
So Spielberg’s panegyrical approach is understandable. Besides this moral zeal, which shines in the film, Lincoln is also a perfect example of how Spielberg masterfully uses overemphasis and turns it into art—he shows how overemphasis need not produce just melodrama. Overemphasis in a film could be the dramatic inflation of moments and scenes for impact. Its medical equivalent would be a suspended release tablet. It is a strictly non-European tool and in commercial cinema, Spielberg, among others, pioneers it. No film of the director, with the possible exceptions of Schindler’s List (1993) and Munich (2005), both of which are works of taut understatement, is free of overemphasis. He explores the dramatic moment to its fullest potential, his camera never shies away from big sweeps and bold movements, from the wide to the close-up. Most of the time, the movement and the verbosity don’t seem trite. The war frames of Saving Private Ryan (1998), the gruesome details of dead or dying soldiers as a collective, as well as singular writhing faces, are deliberately and strategically elongated. In the same film, the misfit soldier cowering amid grenades playing the flute is a statement on the futility of war. Andrew Sarris, the legendary critic of The New York Observer, said in his review that Saving Private Ryan was “tediously manipulative despite its Herculean energy”. Despite the manipulativeness, the film established the supremacy of this language in reaching out to people without compromising on the works of the artistes involved—the clever language of the supreme commercial artiste. In Catch Me If You Can (2002), the crisp pace of the thriller combined with the overemphasis on Frank Abagnale Jr.’s (the lead character’s) shifty cunning, raising him to a Machiavellian character, made the movie unputdownable. The Color Purple wouldn’t be the film it is if not for the scenes following the dining table scene when Celie erupts in anger against the oppressive man—the momentum of the utter helplessness and rage of her situation is carried relentlessly forward.
In Lincoln too, the overemphasis works largely because of the sum total of the big talents involved, and Spielberg’s clear vision of what he wants from the film. The film is partly based on 2005’s American best-seller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is set in the last phase of Lincoln’s administration, in 1865, when the Civil War was on the ebb, but was still unleashing horror. Lincoln may have an offer of a peace agreement from the rebels, but what he is most bullish about, with sheer moral grit, is the passage of the 13th amendment to the constitution, abolishing slavery. He has worthy opponents within his government and outside the political establishment.
On the personal front, Abe and his wife Mary (Sally Field) cringe with the guilt of their third son’s death. Their first son’s wish to join the armed forces is a point of conflict too, but Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner are more interested in the big picture, and the political procedures. The scenes of battle in the Senate are detailed, unflinching and verbose. Facts heap on facts in some scenes, and sometimes lofty oratory dominates a frame, shot with impeccable attention to the speaker’s facial features. The senate scenes often seem like a play captured by many cameras. Tommy Lee Jones plays an unforgettable radical who believes racism should be abolished not because it is illegal but because it is just morally wrong. He has the film’s best lines and gets the best closure in the film—even better than Lincoln, whose end in the story is his assassination.
Kushner, a playwright and screenwriter (who also incidentally wrote Munich), is liberal with language. The clever dialogues are crafted with care, and have punch as well as depth.
The middle of the film, when Lincoln and his aides try to gather the 13 votes required to pass the amendment, is flabby. Some scenes get repetitive. But towards the end, the momentum rises, until the climactic passing of the amendment and Lincoln’s famous speech, and his assassination.
Daniel Day-Lewis deserves every word of praise for his portrayal of the most exalted American president. He adopts the character’s cragginess. We know Lincoln’s look of dissatisfied, weighed-down, gauntness, and nobody else could have perfected that physicality better—Day-Lewis convinced me. He has long speeches and long dialogues when only he speaks in front of many other characters—through all of this, Day-Lewis is firmly in character and yet is acutely aware of the role’s ability to enthral. He has played two native American roles before, in The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and in There Will be Blood (2007). Utterly riveting like these two roles, Lincoln seems tailor-made for him, to notch up all the Best Actor awards.
Lincoln is a mammoth effort by Spielberg. It is a rich history lesson and at the centre of this history is a character made as mysterious as he is morally charged, played to perfection by an Irish-English actor. Don’t miss it.
Lincoln released in theatres on Friday.