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Thursday, January 24, 2013

My Vote Against "Lincoln"

-- by Tom Phillips

As a member of the Writers Guild of America, I get to cast a vote for the year’s best screenplays.  The WGA Awards – announced in mid-February -- are considered predictors of who will take the Oscars for best screenplay and best picture, so the Hollywood studios compete aggressively for writers’ votes.  This year the most campaigning by far has been for “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner.  Writers have been inundated with DVDs, invitations to screenings, and promotional material for the movie.  But as Spielberg’s Honest Abe might put it, I ain’t voting for “Lincoln.”  Why?  Turn the page. 

As somebody else’s Honest Abe put it, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  Lincoln” appears to have come close to the second of these goals, which is all it takes to win a bunch of Oscars.  But it hasn’t fooled everybody.   

Historian +Eric Foner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book about Lincoln and slavery, calls the movie a “severely truncated view of history.”  It would have us believe that slavery died through the heroic efforts of a principled president, not as a result of vast historical forces, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to win freedom.  Slavery, he says “died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”    

"Lincoln" portrays the president as an abolitionist who believed in the absolute equality of the races.  Kushner has him derive that principle from Euclid’s geometry, but it’s a position he never took, even at the end of the war when he called for only limited voting rights for blacks.  Kushner’s Lincoln also behaves as if the world is watching the United States for leadership (“The fate of human dignity is in our hands!” he cries) when in fact the U-S lagged behind nearly all western countries in abolishing slavery.   

The movie is a hit because it grafts 21st century sensibilities onto a 19th century story, but in doing so it dates itself and misrepresents history.   It begins with a preposterous prologue, in which a black army private lectures the president about equal pay for equal work, then turns his back and walks away while reciting the Gettysburg Address, symbolically daring the president to follow him.  Never mind that equal pay for equal work is a goal not of emancipated slaves but of liberated 20th century women, and that the Gettysburg Address didn’t become famous until long after the war ended.  Never mind that soldiers don’t talk like that to presidents.  This is not history, this is Dreamworks.  The misplaced modernism also extends to touchy-feely relationships and frank talk about civil rights between the Lincolns and their black servants, and male bonding between Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, who actually hold hands while lamenting the carnage of war.      

Most of the characters are historical cartoons.  There’s the fiery abolitionist, the fiery segregationist, the sniveling political hack, the cynical backroom operator, the patrician diplomat, the hysterical wife et al.   In the end the faux congressmen strut and fret as they orate on the floor of the House, and go through long pauses signifying existential agony when their names are called to vote on the thirteenth amendment.  It has all the subtlety of a Punch and Judy show, a milieu that makes Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln look like a complex character.  He goes from folksy philosophy to flashes of anger to fatherly tenderness, and back again, many times.   He does look like Lincoln, and the reedy voice is a distinctive choice.  But this fellow is more than a little too good to be true.  He’s an artful caricature in a movie of caricatures, a big-screen political poster that falsifies history as it glorifies America and the myth-making power of Hollywood itself.   

Luckily, also in the running this year is a film that serves as the perfect antidote. “Argo” takes an unvarnished look at historical events, and it makes fun of the movie industry.  Like “Lincoln” it is based on a true story of the U.S. government getting something done – in this case the rescue of six  state department employees from Tehran during the hostage siege of 1979.  They’re saved by a CIA agent who convinces them to pose as a Canadian film crew shooting a ridiculous film about interplanetary war.  From Jimmy Carter down to the state department clerks, the characters are drawn from life, not legend.  These Americans are in hot water largely because of the United States’ own sorry history in Iran.  And the phony movie is an opportunity to tweak Hollywood for its own devotion to fakery.  

The envelope, please?   I vote for “Argo,” screenplay by +Chris Terrio, directed by +Ben Affleck.  And if we lose, I can quote the producer of the fictional "Argo" movie, played by +Alan Arkin.   Badgered by a reporter at a phony press conference about what the title means, he snaps, “It means Ar-go fuck yourself!” 

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips