The strange ground between theatre and cinema

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnI took my Mum to see Lincoln yesterday with, I must admit, a fair bit of anxiety. I’d had that feeling since first reading about the film. Spielberg directing, Day Lewis starring, the Good Angel of America as the subject: it had Self-Conscious and Ponderous written all over it.

The feeling deepened when I read David Hepworth’s post on the film, in which he argues that the film would have worked better as TV mini-series:

I couldn’t follow half of what went on in it and it’s not long since I read the book it’s based on. As if conscious of the byzantine complexity of the plot, which is acted out in the smoke-filled rooms of Washington in 1865, Spielberg’s film is topped and tailed by a prologue and epilogue which seem to have been parachuted in from children’s TV to make up for the fact that the audience is historically illiterate.

Well, I’ve pretty much telegraphed where this post is going, haven’t I? I loved it. What’s more, my Mum loved it – in that rapt, unmoving, super-attentive way only those who are in love with a film can sustain for more than two hours.

But this was odd, because Lincoln is pretty ponderous, in some ways. It opens just after Lincoln’s re-election as president, with the 13th Amendment on the floor of the House and looking certain to fail to reach the required two-thirds majority for a constitutional amendment. The film doesn’t tell the story of Lincoln’s life before these events, or even the story of the Civil War itself. There is some exposition of these matters, but not nearly as much as you’d think. The narrative engine of the film is the political chicanery needed to get the Amendment passed; the moral compass of the film is the tussle between those who think the war with the South should be ended immediately (which would make the Amendment less likely to pass) and those who think the abolition of slavery is paramount. There aren’t good and evil characters, but there are heroes and cowards, and here heroism is reserved for those with a clear-eyed view of the murky complexity of society and a readiness to compromise themselves in the short-term to get things done. The key line in the film for me was “it’ll do, for now,” and I won’t reveal who says it, but when they do… Well. Reader, I wiped a tear.

It’s not a dynamic film. There are few broad sweeps and landscapes. There are a lot of dark rooms and chambers and small groups of men (nearly always men) talking to each other, sometimes shouting.

It shouldn’t work, frankly, and yet it does.

I think that’s because the film occupies that odd land between the cinema and the theatre. Other films have been in the same twilight zone. Twelve Angry Men springs to mind. I always find them compelling, in a way that television can never be compelling. The size of the screen and the faces is part of it. The light and the music is another. The presence of other watching strangers is another. The mild hassle involved in getting to see it is yet another.

All these things give the thing a weight and an inherent importance that television just can’t achieve. When the thing’s done well, it doesn’t have to show epic landscapes. An intelligent man talking about important matters in a well-lit room using well-crafted words can have all the drama you need.