Defenders of Freedom, Real and Imagined

Lincoln and Skyfall.

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg.

There is a moment, a very small moment in Steven Spielberg’s very large film Lincoln that I found to be the most telling portrait of the somewhat mysterious 16th president. Lincoln is loafing–and that’s the only way to describe it–around the bedroom of the White House, discussing politics with his wife Mary, and we see him, papers in his lap, on a chair. His legs are extended and he’s bootless. At the end of those stilts are a pair of gray woolen socks, their ends flopped over as if he’d just pulled off those boots. Discussions of the 13th Amendment, the crux of the film, have found their way into the bedroom, and this beleaguered man must stretch out and rest his dogs. Here is Lincoln in repose.

These small details are a welcome sight in Spielberg’s film, and augment what might be the best performance of the year. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln, and he’s a marvel: Day-Lewis chewed the scenery as Daniel Plainview, a man who shaped mountains and sea in There Will Be Blood. Here he makes Lincoln a man with a higher pitched, decidedly Midwestern accent, but he’s a more humble man, a man who spoke softly and moved others to shape mountains and sea. When his Lincoln speaks, his audience smiles and nods, happy to hear the stories he spins, proud that such a man is their leader. And then something twists in his fable, the stories he tells turn on the slightest note, and the listeners–politicians, citizens, soldiers–begin to find themselves stirred, roused somehow to fight for this man’s every cause.

Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, attempts to be a film about this politician, Abraham Lincoln, and specifically his attempt to pass the 13th Amendment. Lincoln takes place in the weeks following the 1864 election, when Lincoln won in a landslide, and Republicans swept to take decisive control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. This should make passing the Amendment easy, where once voted through it will go to the state legislatures for ratification.

But these were the days when there was hardly any party unity. To pass the Amendment required a two-thirds majority, so some Democrats had to be on board. To make matters even more intriguing, you had to have hard-line Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, enjoyable, but chewing his lines a bit), men for whom compromise is seen as a weakness. The 13th Amendment is not enough for men like Stevens, he wants more, and he doesn’t want to compromise. Then you had old-school Republicans who demanded that Lincoln sue for peace, to end what remains the bloodiest war in history.

Problem was, if Lincoln ends the war, then, according to the story (and I don’t disbelieve this), they’ve lost much of the impetus for the 13th Amendment. Bring back the Southern States, secure peace, and they’ll demand that peculiar institution. Lincoln knew damn well that he needed to get the Amendment through before peace. He knew that unless there was a permanent end to slavery, the war would have been for naught, that more bloodshed would come.

To achieve this end, Lincoln ally and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn, playing himself), works with three wicked men to try and forge that two-thirds majority. Here we see Spielberg’s best moments: the trio, played by a freshly corpulent James Spader (the weight and the grease suit the man well), John Hawkes, and the woefully underused Tim Blake Nelson, work the taverns and restaurants and back alleys, follow beleaguered Democrats as they duck hunt, making a variety of promises (“you can be postmaster general!”), bribes, and threats to secure a vote.

This is somewhat exciting stuff. I say “somewhat” because this political football is almost entirely the wrong tack for a filmmaker of Spielberg’s sensitivity. Spielberg, as usual, drenches this film in dappled light as it dribbles in past dark curtains, brilliant from stardust. As is always Spielberg’s bane, he seeks to telegraph every moment for the grade school educated audience he thinks is watching Lincoln. Has a movie been so awfully didactic as this one? Each new conversation on the subject begins with a brief summary of what we’ve already seen and heard, even his wife saying things like “I know you’re worried about the 13th Amendment…” Scenes in the halls of Congress should feel energized, instead seem like we’re watching a reenactment video you might catch at some Civil War museum.

The film drags along, diffused with long asides about Lincoln’s family, Mary’s madness (she’s played by Sally Field, who gives a remarkably nuanced performance in spite of itself), and some worthlessness about his elder son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to join the Army against his parents’ wishes. In a regrettable scene that could’ve been cut entirely, Lincoln hauls Robert to an army hospital to dissuade him from enlisting. A couple of black soldiers push a wheelbarrow dripping blood past the young man who sees–horror!–that it contains the amputated arms and legs of soldiers, which must’ve come as a surprise to literally no human being who watched this movie.

There’s no pop and crackle to the film, and the compromises, the chasing after votes, seem oddly clean, oddly without emotional impact. Sad, too, are a pair of bloody scenes from the war: an opening battle pitting black soldiers against white, and so staid and dull that you’d think Spielberg had just grafted in a moment from Glory. Then, toward the end, we see Lincoln touring a battlefield, and moved almost to tears. “I’ve never seen anything like that before” he admits to Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris.) Would that we could say the same–there are literally battlefield moments in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that have more impact, more blood and gore and meaning.

It is pretty clear that Spielberg’s great focus as a filmmaker is on history, but mostly World War II history. Schindler’s List, Empire of the SunSaving Private Ryan, even Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tinin reflect his love of that era. There’s moments of genuine madness in those first two films, and I couldn’t help but imagine how potent the long discussions of the 13th Amendment would have been had they been framed by battles that had even a tenth of Saving Private Ryan’s intensity. But perhaps the Civil War doesn’t pique Spielberg’s innovative nerves as the Second World War.

And that’s a shame, because it wastes that central performance, and wastes a lot of that beautiful detail, and frankly it wastes a decent subject in how political compromises shaped, and continue to shape, this nation. I’ll give Lincoln a hesitant recommendation, because if anything else it reminds us–Day-Lewis reminds us–that Honest Abe was a man, a remarkable man, whose words had incredible meaning, and whose heartfelt expression of those words changed history. If only Spielberg understood what Lincoln did so well–that the telling of the story is just as important as the facts.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes.

I really hope that someone can tell me the name of the screenwriter who clearly died during the making of the newest James Bond film, Skyfall. For the sudden death of the writer is the only explanation for a movie as schizophrenic as this one.

Frankly, I’m at a loss about the trend towards seriousness in our most shallow stories. James Bond, Batman, Star Wars–these are great entertainments that have all taken a sudden turn in the last two decades toward a strange sort of respectability, as if these goofy stories should soberly reflect modern terrorism, faith, the role of government.

The newest Bond once again sees Daniel Craig suiting up in his tight-fitting, slightly retro gunmetal blue suit with the four-in-hand knot in his tie (that’s my knot, too–it’s awesome. But I digress.) We open with a great fight on the top of a train, this following a most ridiculous motorcycle and SUV chase through an Istanbul street. From the top of the speeding locomotive, Bond is accidentally shot pursuing a bad guy who has a hard drive (inexplicably dangling from his neck) with the names of NATO spies across the globe. With this list, their secret identities will be revealed, and they’ll be killed.

This being a Bond film, I’m happy–very happy in fact–to set aside all the gaping plot holes, like the fact that the spy Bond always seemed to relish using his real name. Or the fact that the shrapnel from Bond’s shoulder, from a wound suffered in the opening sequence, can be traced to only three people on entire planet. Anyway, Bond is shot off the train, falls from five hundred feet into ten feet of rushing water with a quarter-sized hole in his chest from his own side’s weapon, somehow ends up on an island taking bets that he won’t get stung by a scorpion while drinking whiskey, and fucks a beautiful island girl. This is all in the first half hour.

What fun! Skyfall moves swiftly, with a bang and without any regard for the realities of the world. This is what Bond is all about–car chases, whiskey, sex, guns, gadgets. It’s all here, but with some neato twists: Q is now a weird kid, a hacker with horn-rimmed glasses, mussed up hair and crazy cardigans, and the new Moneypenny, meant to be a surprise (though pretty damned obvious), is a great choice, sexy and intelligent and dangerous.

You’ve got strange Bond girls, showers with said Bond girls, and a fight in a luxurious Macau casino that ends ends with a massive thug being hauled to his death by a Komodo dragon. Who cares that this is a ridiculous scene? It’s a welcome moment (if not a slightly disappointing use of the one gadget in the film), a genuinely Bond moment. This is why we still watch these movies after a half century of play.

Then there’s the evil villain: Javier Bardem plays Silva, a former “00” agent who is on the warpath. Bardem is totally over-the-top, isolated on an island, upending the world with computer hacking that is unparalleled. He’s toppling financial institutions, blowing up buildings, and having a blast.

And so are we. Skyfall, despite Craig’s lack of Conneryesque charm, is still fun to watch, and the filmmakers, this time Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, borrow wholesale from the newer spy films, like the Bourne series, and even X-Men to a degree. This is all well and good, servicing a fairly creaky franchise.

There’s other sweet little moments. Bond, hands tied behind his back, is caressed by our villain, Silva, in what is the most overtly homosexual moment in all of the movies. And we find ourselves rooting for Silva, who is certainly distressing Bond more than he lets on (welcome to the 21st Century, Mr. Bond.)

From the great chases, to the very strange Silva, from a tower assassination in Shanghai to a weird island off the coast of China, with its abandoned buildings and toppled statues, Skyfall is a Bond film for the ages. Well, at least until Silva is captured.

And here comes the Macguffin: Silva was betrayed by M years ago, in 1999 to be precise, when Britain was handing Hong Kong over to the Chinese. He was tortured for months, bit into a cyanide capsule that didn’t work, but that ate away most of his upper jaw and his insides. “Life clung to me like a disease,” Silva says, through plate glass to a stunned M, played for the last time by Judi Dench.

See, Silva was M’s favorite. Now Bond is her favorite. We see that she is risking her career by keeping Bond in the field, when he’s in fact failed both his physical and psychological tests. She loves Bond like a son, and Skyfall quickly becomes this weird movie about warring sons, the good against the bad.

This would not necessarily be a bad thing were it not for the fact that Silva’s character becomes, well, something else entirely–maybe Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, from No Country for Old Men? Up to the point in which Silva escapes, he was a hacker extraordinaire, who skills exceeded even Q’s. But when he’s free, what does he do? Well, for the rest of the film, Silva will literally walk around shooting his guns and throwing hand grenades, and doing neither very well. It was hinted that he was a better spy than Bond, though we suddenly see none of that–he’s instead a lousy shot, not very nimble, nor very smart.

And the filmmakers make some serious errors in their entertainment judgment. Called to the carpet for losing the list of spies, M is brought before a government panel to defend herself amidst calls for her retirement. Like the long, boring moments of parliamentary debate that made The Phantom Menace such a drag (admittedly among many other moments), here we get Dench’s M defending, in a long speech, the merits, not of the real MI:6, but of these “00” agents, who aren’t actually real. We don’t need to hear why these spies are important to make the world safe–they’re fantasy. Note to filmmakers: don’t explain or try and make real the fantasy during the fucking fantasy. In closing her speech, M tearfully reads a quote from Tennyson, perhaps the most misguided use of poetry in cinema history.

Silva is hell bent on killing M, just as Bond is hell bent on keeping “Mum” alive. The character of Silva as he’s been developed in Skyfall will never be seen again–the strangely mannered, brilliant man has been replaced by a scowling dude with a bunch of thugs who walk up in broad daylight to a Scottish castle where Bond and M are hiding to kill them. Even by the often weak standards of James Bond, these villains are remarkably tedious–a good dozen or two are dispatched by an old man (Albert Finney, here for no apparent reason except to give us more backstory–this time about Bond) and M. There’s more needless gunplay, and a showdown in a church, and the bad guy is defeated. Gone is Silva’s wit, his genius, the use of computers to achieve his evildoing, gone is really everything that made him appealing.

This is terrible news especially for a movie that started so promisingly. Why this need for endless backstory, for a government hearing, for tearful emotional moments between Bond and M? I mean, I don’t give a rip about M–I care, if you can call it that, about James Bond leaping and jumping and having fights with his gadgets and then marveling as an exotic and beautiful woman is tossed fantastically naked into the mix. I’d love to see updates–maybe a female Bond, but the young Q and Silva’s stroking of Bond’s pants will do for now. But what I don’t need (and what we also saw in this summer’s The Avengers) are filmmakers trying to show us that these falsehoods are really quite important. Of course they’re important–fantasy is important. Until it seeks respectability. And then it’s lost its honesty, and really its heart. Skyfall, like Bardem’s Silva, has been betrayed by good intentions, and has its insides rotting out.

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