There’s a movie opening this week that features a strong, charismatic leader with a rich life experience, making compromises and forging alliances to avoid future persecution of a targeted minority, against the backdrop of an extremely uncivil, civil war. Actually there are two as, on some level (and the comparison may offend some), that description oddly fits both Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and “Twlight” – or more accurately “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2.”
Naturally, the higher quality outing comes courtesy of Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lincoln and stars Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, a role he allegedly immersed himself in so completely that even the crew dressed in period costumes to avoid breaking the concentration of both Day-Lewis and fellow method actor Sally Field, who played Mary Todd Lincoln. And in many respects such attention to detail and their craft pays off in a richly layered, strongly acted, and beautifully depicted episode from history – aided by supporting performances by such other greats as Tommy Lee Jones and Hal Holbrook, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, James Spader, and John Hawkes (also currently starring in the amazing “The Sessions”).
But for all of the brilliance of the production, “Lincoln” is most likely not the film that many will be expecting. Despite the generic and seemingly all-encompassing title, “Lincoln” is not some grand scale biopic of the life or even the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It primarily spans a very short and specific period before and during the House debate on the legislation that would ultimately become the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. Which brings me back to my own generic description of the narrative: Lincoln recognized the flaws and limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation and knew that a more permanent and all encompassing end to slavery was needed. But whereas the Senate had already approved the content, the majority of opinion in the House was against it and its passage was dependent on much wheeling, dealing, and compromise – including the promise of an imminent end to the Civil War.
All of which is grand in scale when seen at the level of philosophical positions and vision. However, it’s far less grand when seen at the level of the inter-personal relationships. It’s not that it’s not fascinating at times but, in the screenplay written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) and directed by Spielberg, it occasionally feels like a 19th Century pilot episode for a pre-pre-prequel to “The West Wing” – or a period big budget costume drama constitutional adaptation of Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill.” Not that either of those things is inherently bad, it’s just extremely procedural and the outcome involves more vote counting than cannons firing.
It also does two things with regard to comparing politics then with politics now. On the one hand much of the favor trading and negotiations may not have changed that much – albeit perhaps marginally less blatant. On the other hand, for all of the seemingly entrenched positions on both sides of the aisle depicted in “Lincoln,” the action was ultimately successful with enough votes swayed –whereas the level of gridlock currently in Washington seems to have reached a new high, or low depending on one’s perspective. And President Obama is in much the same position, with a Senate that’s more amenable to his ideas and a House that needs to be won over on everything – and which will likely fight a 4% tax increase even more aggressively than their predecessors fought the end of slavery.
At the other end of the scale of weight and meaning, Edward Cullen is back and forced to find friends, relatives, and perhaps even past enemies who will stand with him against the dreaded cape-wearing Volturi, to protect his newly undead wife Bella and their unlikely half-mortal daughter Renesmee (an awful name that doesn’t even get better when truncated). Apparently, vampires past were in the habit of biting small children whose development was then arrested in a permanent and devastatingly destructive temper tantrum phase, taking out entire villages rather than just a candy counter at the checkout aisle (and checkout aisle temper tantrums are almost as bad as political aisle temper tantrums). So, over time, these vampire children were outlawed on pain of even deathier death and so the arrival of little Renesmee/Ness/Nessie where such offspring are unheard of seems mighty suspicious and provocative to all of vampiredom.
Of course there are other sub-plots, like Teenwolf Jacob who has a predestined crush on baby Renesmee (“It’s a wolf thing”) – and Volturi boss Aro who apparently has a penchant for unique aptitudes. But despite actually being quite well put together, with some very engaging action scenes when the two sides finally meet, this last chapter doesn’t even feel like a last chapter. With the final book, “Breaking Dawn,” having been split in two for the screen (much like a disobedient vampire), “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” never really feels like anything other than the disconnected final act of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1.” And the pacing and material-stretching reinforces the idea that it was little more than a money grab rather than a narrative choice: With the 115 minute running time feeling like it’s almost an hour longer than the actual resolution required and a couple of false endings that had people about to get up and leave. These two two-hour movies would have made a far more memorable three-hour finale if they hadn’t been wrenched apart.
It’s a franchise that’s made worldwide stars of its three leads – Robert Pattinson as Edward, Kristen Stewart as Bella, and Taylor Lautner as Jacob. One intriguing aspect of the early screening and its audience of fanatic ‘Twihards’ were the rousing cheers, from respective halves of the audience, for Pattinson and Lautner, and the slightly more subdued and mixed boos and catcalls for Stewart. Whether or not that’s the result of Bella’s onscreen rejection of Jacob or Stewart’s off-screen drama with Pattinson was hard to tell – but it will be interesting to see how their respective careers and popularity develop from this point on.
The other interesting aspect to the “Twilight” dynamic is that while “Breaking Dawn – Part 1” was almost uncomfortably sexual when seen with a theater full of tween and teen girls, “Breaking Dawn – Part2” is more subtle in its sexual content but surprisingly overt and graphic in its vampire on vampire and wolf on vampire violence. Suddenly it seems like the pivotal scene is likely to appeal more to teen boys than teen girls – another argument in favor of keeping the parts together for balance rather than apart for dollars.
And so we have two epic movie projects hitting screens on the same weekend but unlikely to do battle, given two fairly distinct target demographics. The box office winner will, of course, be “Twilight” but the awards winner, everywhere other than the People’s Choice Awards and MTV Movie Awards, will be “Lincoln.” While the counter-programming might keep marketing executives happy, it’s a shame that “Lincoln” couldn’t have arrived on a slightly less competitive weekend as it’s likely to become the iconic image of Abraham Lincoln for a generation to come – but it’s a generation that will be more likely to stream it on a tablet or phone where a lot of the impressive detail will be lost. Meanwhile, the blood, fangs, and sparkly lovers of “Twilight” will be seen on an enormous number of big screens, as digital film distribution allows theaters to fill almost every auditorium with midnight screenings contributing to a weekend haul that could conceivably double last weekend’s $88-million opening for “Skyfall.”