Carrie Vaughn suggested on her blog that someone could do a combined review of Lincoln and Django Unchained.
Happy to oblige, Carrie.
In brief, Lincoln is a glossy, reverent, beautifully acted dramatization of Lincoln’s attempts to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Django Unchained, on the other hand, is a Tarantino film.
I think that sums it up pretty well, don’t you?
But yah, okay, you want more. Fine. Here ya go.
Lincoln is another of Spielberg’s beautifully-constructed historical films, and will (I assume) give Daniel Day-Lewis his third Oscar, as it’s just given him a Golden Globe. Somehow he walks like a taller, thinner man, shambling, hunched. His voice is a sweet hick accent that seems perfectly plausible. And the script presents us with a fairly complete Lincoln: the politician, the husband, the parent, the idealist, the operator, the commander in chief, the cracker-barrel storyteller.
We don’t see the depth of the man’s depression. (At this point in his life, he would take regular nocturnal trips to the tomb of his son Willie, where he would remove the lid of the sarcophagus and sit for hours watching his son rot. Now that’s depression.)
Nor is Mary Lincoln presented as quite as crazed as she was in real life. (On a visit to the front, she burst into a furious attack against Mrs. General Grant for allegedly making a play for her husband.) But the real-life Mary Lincoln was also a smart political operator, and the movie shows that side of her very well.
Kudos to Tony Kushner’s script for successfully dramatizing something that is normally dull as dishwater: moving a bill through Congress. And hats off to Tommy Lee Jones, with a surprising star turn as the ranting radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, which reminds us of the days when Republicans ranted for a good cause.
One of Spielberg’s flaws is that he rarely knows when to end his movies— there’s one big climax after another until the movie dies of exhaustion, when the craftsmanlike decision would be to pick one finish and stick with it. (I wish he would re-edit and re-release Empire of the Sun, maybe my favorite Spielberg, with this in mind.) I wish Lincoln ended with Lincoln walking into the light, but instead it goes on through several less successful endings before it finally dies.
Another not-quite-flaw in the film is that while the story is about slavery and the decision to abolish it, no actual slaves appear in the motion picture. We hear about slavery, but we don’t see it. The film’s arguments have an abstract quality to them. Everyone’s in favor of abolishing slavery when the slaves are purely hypothetical and the slaves don’t move next door.
That’s where Django Unchained comes in. Django punches you in the face with slavery in the very first scene, with a line of scarred, beaten, shackled slaves shuffling across a desert landscape that’s supposed to be Texas. And the film’s portrait of slavery is unflinching, showing it as brutal, murderous, exploitive, sadistic, violent, and sexually depraved. And of course the film’s hero is a former slave trying to reunite with his wife, so he automatically has our sympathy.
In fact the film has a lot of heart, something I’ve complained has been missing from Tarantino’s recent epics. And it has a degree of moral seriousness unusual in Tarantino films. But it’s only a degree, because Tarantino’s far more interested in pulp fiction than in politics. There’s a decided tension between the Tarantino who’s delivering us the horrific facts of slavery, and the Tarantino who wants us to enjoy the sight of intestines exploding under the repeated impact of bullets.
That tension is what makes the movie work, and if Pulp Tarantino wins, that’s only to be expected. This is Tarantino’s homage to Blaxploitation films, and that’s what he defaults to in the end.
People tend to remember Blaxploitation as films about pimps and hustlers, but in fact Blaxploitation pretty much covered all the genres. There were cop movies (Cotton Comes to Harlem), horror (Blacula), Westerns (Legend of Nigger Charley), martial arts (The Last Dragon), even sports movies (Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings). There was a whole sub-genre starring Pam Grier’s breasts, and a very fine sub-genre that was, too.
And of course, Blaxploitation films were produced, written, and directed by white men. And so is Django Unchained.
(By the way, does anyone remember the title of the movie that featured Nichelle Nichols as a madam? There was an insanely hilarious scene that tried to break the record for the most motherfuckers per minute of screen time. They not only broke the record, they shattered it. I don’t know how they filmed it without everyone on the set falling over in helpless laughter. I imagine the record still stands.)
Be that as it may, one of the primary Blaxploitation genres was the Get Even With Whitey genre. And Whitey is clearly up to no good in this movie. Django’s going to get his woman back if he has to slaughter half the rednecks in Mississippi, and that’s pretty much what he does.
In Tarantino’s films there are always lovely bits of casting. Christoph Waltz walks off with every scene as Django’s cheerfully homicidal bounty hunter mentor. Leonardo di Caprio does some highly intelligent scenery-chewing as the evil planter Candie— as an actor he’s always over the top, but never out of control. And Samuel Jackson, made up as Uncle Ben, is clearly enjoying himself as the most evil Uncle Tom in the history of Uncle Tomdom.
(And by the way, has anyone noticed that since Waltz’s character is named Dr. King Schulz, we find Django freed by Dr. King?)
All that said, the movie goes on too long. The violent climax happens about two-thirds along, and then the movie just keeps going, with another, less satisfying violent climax happening later.
So if you like Tarantino, this is a Tarantino you’ll like. Presumably you’re used to the sight of exploding intestines by now. So you’re not allowed to complain when they explode.
And now, the final compare-and-contrast.
Lincoln frees the slaves. And Django kills Whitey.
And that’s how it’s supposed to be.