Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

It pays to be Doris Kearns Goodwin

Steven Spielberg keeps buying the rights to her books faster than her publisher can get them on the shelves. From the LA Times:

A year after Steven Spielberg‘s “Lincoln” became a box office hit and award-season favorite, the filmmaker’s DreamWorks Studios has announced plans to make another presidential drama — and based on the work of the same author who helped make “Lincoln” possible.

The studio has acquired the rights to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s upcoming book “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which is set for publication Nov. 5. Kearns also wrote 2005’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius ofAbraham Lincoln,” which became the basis for Tony Kushner’s “Lincoln” script.

We’ve already had a couple of really good onscreen Teddy Roosevelts: Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion and Tom Berenger in TNT’s Rough Riders. Interestingly, Keith was in Rough Riders, too; he played Roosevelt’s predecessor William McKinley. John Milius directed both films, so maybe it wasn’t a coincidence.

Not sure what they’re planning to do with Taft, but if Spielberg’s got some money to spare on visual effects, my people can sit down with his people and discuss an option on an old post of mine…

Be a shame to let this current superhero mania go to waste.

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Spared no expense

I usually avoid 3-D movies. The image is usually too dark, and the artificial depth just reminds me that what I’m watching is, after all, only a movie on a screen. But when Jurassic Park gets a re-release for its twentieth anniversary, I make an exception.

They’ve given it a darn good 3-D conversion. If you get the opportunity to see it in IMAX, by all means do so. Watching the T. rex attack sequence in the larger format is worth the price of a ticket by itself, especially with a good sound system behind it.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t really pay to see it in 3-D or IMAX, but simply to watch it with an audience in a darkened theater again. It holds up remarkably well. Photorealistic CGI effects were still in their infancy back in 1993, but JP‘s visuals still compare favorably with the digital effects in many modern films. Stan Winston’s live-action puppetry and robotics work in the JP franchise remains the pinnacle of the craft. The ensemble’s chemistry is still there. The plot hums right along without missing a beat. (Since it’s been on DVD, I’ve gotten accustomed to viewing my favorite moments separately rather than the movie as a whole, and one of the things that surprised me as I watched it from beginning to end in a theater again is what a lean and efficient piece of entertainment it is.) The whole thing still works.

A lot of people have asked me whether I prefer Jurassic Park as a novel or a film. I think they’re both masterpieces, but I’ve never been able to answer the question simply because the movie isn’t really an adaptation of the book. They’re best taken as two different stories based on the same premise. Spielberg’s distinctive fingerprints are all over his version, not just in terms of the visuals but also in terms of characters, emotion, and theme. Whereas Crichton’s novel ends on a note of uncertainty and pessimism, Spielberg’s movie ends with the creation of a sort of surrogate family. And whereas Crichton’s John Hammond is greedy and temperamental, the movie presents him as a tragic but sympathetic figure whose primary goal is not profit, but the desire to share something grand and wonderful. “An aim,” as he puts it, “not devoid of merit.”

Whether as a novel or a film, it’s one of the definitive expressions of modern man’s peculiar dilemma: there’s a formidable gulf between the power at our disposal on the one hand, and the wisdom and knowledge with which we exercise it on the other. What better way to explore this theme than a story about humans encountering dinosaurs, the creatures we can know about but never really know, who ruled this planet long before we ever started trying to understand it and master it?

Anyway, because I was a thirteen-year-old dinosaur fanatic when Jurassic Park hit theaters, I suppose I’ve never been in a position to be objective about it. Whatever faults the film has, I remain blind to them, like a guy who marries his high school sweetheart and never falls out of love with her. Don’t miss this chance to see it on the big screen again.

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Rep. Joe Courtney makes a mountain out of a molehill

I can understand why he’d be miffed that Lincoln wrongly depicts representatives from his state voting against the Thirteenth Amendment, but sending a letter to Spielberg asking him to fix it in time for the DVD release is going a little overboard.

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Movie items of interest

  • International audiences for Spielberg’s Lincoln will see a slightly different opening sequence to provide context for viewers who might not be as familiar with American history.  Maybe some additional background would’ve been a good idea for American moviegoers, too; Black Hawk Down and Argo both needed historical prologues even though the events in question happened during the lifetimes of many of the people watching the films.
  • Readers of ScreenCrush selected Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as the worst movie of 2012, indirectly proving the continuing viability of democracy as the best available form of government.
  • Saving Lincoln, the upcoming film about Ward Hill Lamon, made HuffPo.
  • That high-pitched, ecstatic shrieking sound you heard?  That was me: We now have a trailer for the twentieth anniversary 3D re-release of Jurassic Park and an official release date for JP4.

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Lincoln gets his mouth washed out

At long last, we arrive at the most pressing issue yet regarding Spielberg’s Lincoln: Is there too much cussin’ in it?

The Hollywood Reporter asked David Barton for his take:

“The historical record is clear that Lincoln definitely did not tolerate profanity around him,” Barton says. “There are records of him confronting military generals if he heard about them cursing. Furthermore, the F-word used by [W.N.] Bilbo was virtually nonexistent in that day and it definitely would not have been used around Lincoln. If Lincoln had heard it, it is certain that he would instantly have delivered a severe rebuke.”

Barton is overstating his case, as he often does. Lincoln didn’t make a habit of swearing, but he did break out the curse words occasionally, especially when his temper got the better of him. Check out Chapter Seven in Michael Burlingame’s The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, which discusses some of these episodes. And as we’ve noted before, he wasn’t above telling an off-color joke.

What about those records of Lincoln confronting generals who cursed? Barton doesn’t specify which records he’s talking about, but in an article at his organization’s website he says Lincoln “personally confronted one of his own generals when he learned of his profanity and then urged the general to use his authority to combat that vice.” His source is Arthur Brooks Lapsley’s The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, which briefly mentions the incident without naming any names or providing specific details. Off the top of my head, I don’t know what incident this is.  In any case, I don’t really think we can use this story to draw any broad conclusions about Lincoln’s level of toleration for profanity.  It wouldn’t be unusual for a commander-in-chief to rebuke an officer who used vulgar language in his presence in the nineteenth century.

As for the f-word being “virtually nonexistent” during the Civil War, while the term wasn’t as common or endowed with so many varied meanings as it is now, it wasn’t unknown. It was rare to see the f-word in print, of course, although even during the Victorian era it appeared in pornographic stories.

Barton notes that officers and enlisted men in the Union forces were subject to courts-martial for using profanity, and that’s certainly true. Yet to judge by their own accounts, soldiers in that war—like soldiers in other times and places—swore profusely. “There is so much swearing in this place it would set anyone against that if from no other motive but disgust at hearing it,” wrote one Northern soldier about life in camp. Another noted that “Drinking, Swearing, & Gambling is carried on among Officers and men from the highest to the lowest.”  The same thing was true of the Continental Army, where cursing was officially discouraged but widely practiced.

So if you ask me, here’s the bottom line: While  Abraham Lincoln didn’t curse much, and while profanity wasn’t as ubiquitous in his day as it is in ours, there’s nothing particularly inaccurate about the movie’s language.

None of this really matters in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s interesting that moviegoers are surprised at the notion that nineteenth-century Americans had an arsenal of vulgarities at their disposal and the moxie to use them. I think it’s because they look so stern and dignified in those old paintings and photos. We’re so used to seeing them in gilt frames and on marble pedestals that encountering them in any other way can be a jolt.

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Taking Hollywood to task

When I wrote my own review of Lincoln, I said this: “You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink.  Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.”

Based on some of the responses to the movie that have hit the Interwebs since then, I might need to revise that statement.  Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was the main draw for me, but at least some viewers apparently had different expectations.

I have a tendency to judge all Lincoln-related movies by how convincingly they depict him.  If a film can sell me on its Lincoln, I can overlook any number of other flaws.  Conversely, if I don’t buy the Lincoln, then it’s hard for me to appreciate other strengths a movie might have.  I’ve enjoyed quite a few good Lincoln portrayals over the years, performances that have captured particular aspects of the genuine article—Henry Fonda, Walter Huston, and Sam Waterston are favorites of mine—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody inhabit the role as completely as Day-Lewis.  I didn’t love everything about Spielberg’s film, but what I really wanted to see was Lincoln himself, and I left the theater satisfied.

Some historians have noted the movie’s inaccuracies, which is a perfectly proper thing for historians to be doing.  Other commentators, though, seem less interested in what the filmmakers did wrong as much as they’re interested in what they didn’t do at all.

Over at The Atlantic, for example, Tony Horwitz writes, “I enjoyed Lincoln and agree that it strips away the nostalgic moss that has draped so much Civil War cinema and remembrance. But here’s my criticism. The movie obscures the distance Lincoln traveled in his views on race and slavery. Probing this journey would have made for better history and a finer, more complex film.”  Sure, but it also would’ve made for a completely different film.  Spielberg and Kushner made a conscious decision to focus on the last months of Lincoln’s life.  Including his transformation from a fairly conservative Whig into the man who embraced the Thirteenth Amendment and made public references to limited black enfranchisement would have required not a longer movie, but another one.

Historian Kate Masur, meanwhile, complains that “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.…Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation.…[I]t reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.”  But this isn’t a movie “devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery.”  It’s a movie about the twilight of Lincoln’s presidency.  Any examination of the men who stood at the pinnacle of the American government in the 1860’s is inevitably going to spend most of its time on white men.

William Harris wrote a book about the last months of Lincoln’s second term; I don’t think anyone who would criticize that book for failing to analyze the evolution of Lincoln’s views on race from 1858 to 1865 would get much of a hearing.  Similarly, I think most of us would be quite surprised if a reviewer referred to a novel about Lincoln as “an opportunity squandered” because the book didn’t deal with African-American life in nineteenth-century Washington.

Yet Masur ultimately concludes that the move is “an opportunity squandered.”  That sort of reaction is legitimate when it comes to major museum exhibits or interpretation at an important historic site, since those are educational institutions which can and should try to tell definitive stories about their subjects.  Movies shouldn’t have to be so authoritative.

We seem to hold filmmakers to a lower standard when it comes to getting the facts straight, but a higher one when it comes to deciding what to include and what not to include.  The reason, I think, is because movies reach so many people and leave such an impression.  We envy filmmakers their audience and their influence, and since we know how many stories about the past need telling, we want filmmakers to use the tremendous resources at their disposal to tell the ones that matter to us, as well as to tell their own stories well.

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Lincoln’s Ethan Allen story

Lincoln as a candidate for the presidency, as depicted in a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier from a painting by Thomas Hicks. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

My favorite scene in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln takes place in the War Department’s telegraph office, as Lincoln and Stanton are waiting for news from Wilmington, NC. Lincoln decides to tell the assembled staff a vulgar story about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen. Stanton, already on the verge of bursting with the tension, can’t handle another of his boss’s rambling yarns and goes scurrying off. As the room erupts in laughter, the camera cuts to a portrait of Washington hanging overhead. The first president’s stern face gazes down impassively on one of his unlikeliest successors—an awkward, unpolished frontier lawyer—who’s cracking up at his own off-color joke, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s sitting at the nerve center of a vast war machine.

As it happens, the anecdote in question is one the historical Lincoln actually told on at least a couple of occasions.

Abner Ellis was one of many Lincoln acquaintances who shared their recollections about the slain president with William H. Herndon. Here’s how Ellis recorded the Ethan Allen story in a written statement from 1866, which you can find in the collection of Herndon’s research material edited by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis:

It appears that Shortly after we had pease with England Mr Allen had occasion to visit England, and while their the English took Great pleasure in teasing him, and trying to Make fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington, and hung it up the Back House whare Mr Allen Could see it

and they finally asked Mr A if he saw that picture of his freind in the Back House.

Mr Allen said no. but said he thought that it was a very appropriate for an Englishman to Keep it Why they asked, for said Mr Allen their is Nothing that Will Make an Englishman S**t So quick as the Sight of Genl Washington And after that they let Mr Allens Washington alone

(The asterisks aren’t in the original, but you never know who’s reading your blog.)

Ellis wasn’t the only one of Herndon’s sources who remembered Lincoln’s fondness for the Ethan Allen story. On the day the Republican National Convention nominated him for the presidency in Chicago, Lincoln was back in Springfield, playing ball and chewing the fat with some friends. One of them was Christopher C. Brown, who recalled that Lincoln was “nervous, fidgety” that day and that he passed the time telling anecdotes, including the one about “Washingtons picture in a necessary.”

Abner Ellis claimed that he never heard the Allen story from anyone but Lincoln, so one wonders where he got it. I don’t think Ethan Allen went to England after the war, so if the incident with the privy actually happened, it probably wasn’t exactly as Lincoln told it. Allen was imprisoned in England for a while following his capture at Longue-Pointe, so it’s possible that something along the lines of Lincoln’s story could have happened then.

Oddly enough, in the film Lincoln tells the War Department staff that Allen and the Green Mountain Boys captured Ft. Ticonderoga in 1776. The fort actually fell in May of 1775, just a few weeks after the war started. I’m guessing this was a slip on the part of the screenwriter; Lincoln himself had done his share of reading about the Revolution as a kid.

Anyway, it makes for a great scene.

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner resurrect Lincoln

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

First things first.  You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink.  Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.  In fact, between the two of them, star Daniel Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner have almost worked a miracle of resurrection.

It’s not just that Day-Lewis disappears into the role.  It’s that his Lincoln is so complete.  We’ve had excellent movie Lincolns before, but I don’t think anyone has captured so many aspects of his personality in one performance.  You get the gregarious raconteur as well as the melancholy brooder, the profound thinker as well as the unpolished product of the frontier, the pragmatic political operator as well as the man of principle.  He amuses the War Department staff with off-color jokes in one scene, then ruminates on Euclid and the Constitution in another.  It’s the closest you’re going to get to the real thing this side of a time machine, a distillation of all the recollections and anecdotes from Herndon, Welles, and the other contemporaries into one remarkable character study.

And it’s primarily as a character study that the movie stands out, for there is much about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that is unremarkable.  Not bad, mind you, but unremarkable.  The film takes as its story the effort to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, and at times it’s too much a run-of-the-mill political procedural.  The Thirteenth Amendment was undeniably one of the Civil War’s most important outcomes; it formally ended a divisive institution which had existed in America for more than two centuries and contributed to a fundamental shift in the relationship between U.S. citizens and their government.  But it seems—to me, anyway—like an odd method of approach if one is trying to convey all the drama and significance of Lincoln’s presidency in a couple of hours.  Why not the Emancipation Proclamation or the ups and downs of the Union’s military fortunes, instead of an issue dependent on so much wheeling, dealing, cajoling, speech-making, and roll-calling?  Telling the story of the amendment’s fate makes this a movie that’s as much about democracy as it is about Lincoln himself, and that’s fine, but Day-Lewis and Kushner have given us such an interesting central character that the rest of the film seems unexpectedly average by comparison.

Even Spielberg’s directorial trademarks—his tendency toward sentimentality and his flair as a visual stylist—are surprisingly kept in the background.  This movie doesn’t have the signature Spielberg “moments”—no little girl dressed in a crowd of black and white, no thundering footfalls from some unseen menace causing ominous vibrations in the water, no kids on flying bicycles silhouetted against the moon.  One scene between Lincoln and Mary does have a distinctively “Spielbergian” sense of light and shadow, but other than that, the director’s fingerprints are not really apparent.  It’s a very restrained, straightforward effort.

Perhaps that’s as it should be, because ultimately this show belongs to the screenwriter and the cast.  Like Lincoln himself, Kushner has a flair for language, and the dialogue is some of his best work.  Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn give some of the finest performances of their careers, and Jackie Earle Haley looks more like Alexander Stephens than Alexander Stephens himself did.

Ultimately, though, when this movie soars it’s because it makes one of the most compelling figures in American history seem to live again.  When I was in the museum business, we used to bring in Lincoln impersonators to do presentations for groups of schoolchildren.  These events were always a lot of fun, but the most memorable moments for me happened offstage, when “Lincoln” would relax on a couch in the office, out of character.  At those times you could catch a glimpse of him, sitting there in a black suit with his stovepipe hat on the table beside him, one long leg folded over the other while he chatted and joked with the staff.  It was downright surreal.  This, I would think to myself, is what it must have been like to sit in the telegraph office at the War Department or in a parlor at the Executive Mansion, watching Lincoln just being himself.  I had the same thought the first time Spielberg’s Lincoln appeared on the screen, and that was more than worth the price of a movie ticket.

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Lincoln stuff is headed your way

Those of you who live near a ginormous city will be able to see Lincoln this Friday, but it won’t open here in flyover country until Nov. 16.  I’m almost as anxious to swap reactions with all you online history buffs and bloggers as I am to see the movie itself, but I guess I’ll have to wait an extra week before I can review it on the blog.  I suspect that the Union will win, the Thirteenth Amendment will go to the states, rousing speeches will be speechified, and a performance of Our American Cousin will be unexpectedly cut short—but all the same, don’t you guys in New York and L.A. spoil the ending for us, okay?

In the meantime, I’ve got a review of Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History in the works.  I’ll post it here or over at the Lincoln Institute blog, or perhaps cross-post it to both.

Speaking of Lincoln movies, you might remember the upcoming film about Lincoln’s relationship with Ward Hill Lamon that was in the news last year.  The folks behind the project have put together a sneak peek and they were kind enough to direct my attention to it.  Brooks Simpson has already posted the video over at Crossroads, but here it is anyway if you haven’t seen it yet:

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A couple of Lincoln notices

Spielberg’s Lincoln screened at the New York Film Festival, and the early reviews have been pretty good.  Everybody seems to be impressed with Daniel Day-Lewis and the rest of the cast; the story is apparently good, if a little slow-moving.  I’m guessing the NYFF screening wasn’t the final cut, so the wide release version will probably be a little tighter.

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado tried valiantly to put the best face on Obama’s debate performance: “It’s just like Lincoln. When Lincoln ran for re-election, it was…dead close, I mean really a struggle, really close, and he wasn’t a great public speaker. I mean, Obama’s a great speaker. Lincoln wasn’t a great debater.”

He later clarified his remarks by stating, “Evidently…in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, by most accounts, he had a hard time keeping up with Stephen Douglas, who was great. That’s what I was referring to.”

Because if there was one area where the man who delivered the Gettysburg Address needed improvement, it was public speaking.  But to be fair, Republicans have been having their own history issues lately.

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