Saturday, February 23, 2013

Lincoln Unchained

Ah, Oscar time. While pop culture’s controversy spotlight once again shines on one of its favorite subjects, film geek provocateur Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood’s untouchable golden boy and go-to moral compass Steven Spielberg gets a pass. While “Django Unchained” renewed my faith in Tarantino as crucial head barbarian at Tinseltown’s fortified gates, Spielberg’s latest historical moneymaker “Lincoln” dubiously did more than merely exceed my tolerance threshold for feel-good cheesiness. (Playwright Tony Kushner's theatrical flourishes only work onscreen if they're tempered by the subtle direction of a nuanced dude like Mike Nichols – whereas Spielberg’s over-the-top style is like turning up the volume on Al Pacino.) Indeed, Spielberg’s latest left me feeling more offended than any extended use of the n-word ever could.

For the undeniably brilliant ensemble cast – which includes not just genius Day-Lewis, but the underappreciated Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who can hold his own head-to-head with the aforementioned heavyweight, much like Paul Dano did in "There Will Be Blood") and a hilarious (and nearly unrecognizably plump) James Spader – and the praise it’s deservedly garnered, is only serving to mask the flick’s truly disturbing revisionist thinking. Two righteous abolitionist characters – Tommy Lee Jones’s hobbled Thaddeus Stevens and Stephen Spinella’s effeminate Asa Vintner Litton – in particular deserve the same level of scrutiny as a Spike Lee tweet. Spielberg’s following the studio rule that all good guys must have a personal connection to whatever cause they’re pursuing – be it revenge for the death of a loved one, or in Stevens’s case, falling in love with his black housekeeper – has the troubling effect of also making it seem that Civil War-era white guys (other than St. Lincoln) never did the right thing because it was morally correct, but only when they were serving their own self-interests.

Even more problematic, though, is Spinella’s impassioned abolitionist, which registers as, well, complete bullshit. Using Spinella, a talented theater vet who took the Tony for his portrayal of Prior Walter in Kushner’s “Angels in America,” as a vehicle to link today’s legal struggles in the gay rights arena with the past’s battle for emancipation is both clunky and hollow. The whole concept of gay/straight didn't even exist in Lincoln's time - so Spinella's (white, male – i.e., enfranchised!) character would never have felt "oppressed" (thus empathetic to the slaves, we assume) in the first place. Not only is this “I feel your pain” show of solidarity an insult to an entire African-American population that truly were victimized, but it’s yet another example of privileged white men laying claim to something they should never have tried to own in the first place.

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