Rules It Exemplifies:
- A Hero Needs Special Skills Learned in the Past: The lesson of Lincoln, and Lincoln, is that the greatest weapon a president can have is the ability to disarm (and thereby defang) his adversaries, which Lincoln does with an endless stream of inappropriate (but pointed) back-woods humor. (This is a weapon that LBJ and GWB also wielded expertly, for good or ill). Kushner and Day-Lewis masterfully recreate Lincoln’s canny charade: folksy hick on the surface, quick-eyed political mongoose underneath.
- A Movie is About a Person’s Problem: Kushner famously started out by attempting to cover 1863-65, but he got though hundreds of pages without making it to 1864, so he started over. Then he tried to just cover the four months of 1865, which turned out to be 500 pages! (Somebody publish that version please!) Spielberg, to his infinite credit, got to page 100 and said, “Hey, that’s a movie right there, let’s just stop at the end of January.” This isn’t really a bio-pic: it’s just the story of one problem: the passing of the 13th Amendment in the House. Of course, in Kushner’s capable hands, that’s enough to give a full and rich portrait of the man with the plan.
- Successes and Failures Should Be Ironic: I talked here about how every step of this process is deeply ironic, but…
- The real Oskar Schindler was just as heroic but far less saintly than the movie version, and he would have made for a more complex and human movie.
- After a nice tense scene in Saving Private Ryan in which the platoon is left riven with doubt about whether or not they should have let that German go, he helpfully comes back and kills off a few of them, eliminating all ambiguity…
- …and my all-time favorite example: The titular reports in “Minority Report” (indicating uncertainly about what the future will bring) turn out to be mere red herrings, and in fact Tom Cruise was falsely fingered for the crime not because of any unknowable gap between fate and free will, but simply because he was framed by his boss.
My reflexive distaste for Spielberg is still strong enough that I give most of the credit for this movie to Kushner and Day-Lewis, but I am nevertheless willing to admit that the old duffer left me very pleasantly surprised this time around.