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Thursday, November 22, 2012
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The 5 Most Tony Kushner-y Things About Tony Kushner’s ‘Lincoln’

By Adam Carlson
Pop Culture Contributor


Lincoln is getting raves for pretty much everyone involved in making it, including its director, Steven Spielberg, and its star, Daniel Day-Lewis.

That’s all well and right, of course: Day-Lewis’ performance is impeccable in a way that is difficult to praise precisely; it’s constituent parts have the pull of inevitability, as if the actor has always been playing Abe Lincoln, a little bit, somewhere in the back of his head.

But what’s interesting, in the flood of good reviews that the film has gotten, is that not all of them, or necessarily very many, spend much time talking about Lincoln’s writer, Tony Kushner.

That’s fair, to a point. A conversation about a film can often become a conversation about its director or stars, and the writer can fade further back when she or he is adapting a previous work, as Kushner did with pieces of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.

But, I mean, come on.

Kushner has written for the stage and the screen before, and though he isn’t incredibly prolific — at least not like John Logan, for instance, who at an earlier time took a crack at the Lincoln screenplay — he is incredibly talented.

So consider this a single spotlight, shaped just-so for Lincolns briny, spiky screenplay to best pick out all its best Kushner-y bits.

The language

This one is almost too easy. Most of Lincoln involves Lincoln and dialogue and little else. It’s a movie of debate — indeed, a few of its cornerstone scenes take place on the floor of the House of Representatives. And Kushner has always loved to chew over good ideas; he likes the sounds they make when slammed together in a sentence. Line up some of his talkiest work (The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Angels in America) next to this, close your eyes, and listen. See if you can guess where this line came from:

“We find the mephitic fumes of his oratory a lethal challenge to our pulmonaries.”

The men

So here’s the thing: certain critics (like New York’s David Edelstein) have a taken a certain view of Kushner’s certain view of Lincoln: “Given Kushner’s fondness for writing closet cases, it’s no surprise there’s a kinda-sorta hint of Lincoln’s rumored affection for young men,” Edelstein wrote in his review of the film.

Edelstein doesn’t actually think Lincoln came off all-that-gay in the film. I think he’s right, though I’m not sure what it says about anyone at any point in this conversation that the talking point of Lincoln’s gayness arose, singlehandedly, from the factoid that Kushner is gay and has written about gayness (exquisitely) before. On the measure of its Kushner-y-ness, let’s call this a wash.

The women

A disclaimer, first: I’m not very partial to Sally Field’s version of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd. She’s meant to seem unknowably volatile — caged in by the forces of history, time and political maneuvering — but Field is allowed to play to her chin-trembling worst as an actress, which collapses most of the nuance. Still, she does get a lovely sort of coda near the end, which is helped (I think) by its comparison with another of Kushner’s unknowably volatile women: Angels in America’s Harper, a Mormon housewife caged in by the forces of religion and the march of progressivism.

Harper, like Mary Todd, gets her own lovely coda — lovelier, even — but it’s easy to imagine a cock-eyed time-warp in which the two are soul sisters, ruing how wrong history may or may not get them.

That scene

There are several choice, chewy character parts in Lincoln, including James Spader as a strong-armed dandy doing the president’s dirty work and Lee Pace as former New York mayor (and silver tongued anti-abolitionist) Fernando Wood. First among equals is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a Congressman so opposed to slavery, and so certain in his opposition, that he’s spent the majority of his political career advocating for its abolition.

Stevens’ moral righteousness is a complement to Kushner’s own certitude. In turn, the writer gives Jones many of the film’s best lines — and one of its very best scenes, where Stevens, in order to encourage more hesitant representatives to support the Thirteenth Amendment, waters down his own stance on slavery on the floor of the House.

Like much else in Lincoln, the transformation is framed as a confrontation. Like much else of Kushner’s work, it pulls at themes of historical and political reality.

That other scene

In Lincoln, Lincoln might be a great man, but he isn’t always a great father — this is a Spielberg film, after all. The subplots that focus on this, though, don’t always achieve the lift of grandeur that the rest of the film does. Except for one scene — really, a sliver of one — somewhere in the middle. I proportion out credit for this equally to both director and writer because of both of their fascination with fathers as failures of myth.

When Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Lincoln’s eldest, rails against the man’s edict that he will not join the Union on the eve of the end of the war, their face-off touches a third rail of conflict that the rest of the movie doesn’t quite touch: that between father and son.

Consider the look that crosses Day-Lewis’ face after he strikes his son, and then realize that maybe Lincoln is about another kind of civil war that can never quite be won.

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