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Understanding Screenwriting #104: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #104: <em>Lincoln</em>, <em>Skyfall</em>, <em>Flight</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Lincoln, Skyfall, Flight, Silver Linings Playbook, Middle of Nowhere, Covert Affairs but first…

Fan Mail: First an addition to US#103. I mentioned in the credits for Argo that there was another source listed in the credits of the film, but I could not find it. Shortly after I sent off the column, the new issue of the British magazine Sight & Sound arrived. It identifies the other source as “based on a selection from The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez.” I’m guessing that’s the Tony Mendez.

David Ehrenstein liked my Sharon and Roman story so much he has added it to his one-man show, currently at finer bookstores near you.

“Erbear423” understandably took me to task for appearing to dump Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg into the same category as Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg. I can see how you can read my comments that way, but what I was trying to get at was more the kinds of roles they often play rather than the actors themselves. I like Dano and Eisenberg very much and they have been terrific in some very good movies, but even then they are often playing the sensitive young man finding his way in the world. My point was that there were no characters like that in Argo, for which I was grateful. As for Adam and Andy, they’re on their own.

Lincoln (2012. Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. 150 minutes.)

The public figure: I have always liked Tony Kushner, and not just the concept of Tony Kushner the public writer. The latter would be the playwright and activist who writes about public issues like AIDS, race, violence and politics. What I like about Kushner is that he is a hell of an interesting writer. OK, I will admit that when I first saw the stage play Angels in America in 1995, the writing instructor in me mentally got out my red grading pen. I imagined waving it in the air, saying, “You can cut this;” “You’ve said that three times, twice is probably enough;” “We don’t need all that.” Even though the TV film of Angels (2004) was shorter than the play, I brought out the mental red pen again. And his 2001 play Homebody/Kabul was probably talkier than it needed to be. But his book for the 2002 musical Caroline, or Change was a model of precision. And his screenplay, co-written by Eric Roth, of the 2005 film Munich was one of the smartest scripts of the last decade.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times by Rebecca Keegan, Steven Spielberg had been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln since he was a kid. In 2001 he optioned Goodwin’s book, even though she had not yet finished writing it. Spielberg tried other screenwriters, but was unhappy with the results. The screenplays were all over the map. Finally he went to Kushner, who worked on the script for five years. In typical Kushner style, the first draft ran 500 pages, about 150 pages of which interested Spielberg: Lincoln trying to get the 13th Amendment past the recalcitrant House of Representatives to outlaw slavery for good. Why would that appeal to Spielberg? The storyline has no spectacle, no chance for elaborate swirling camera moves, and not even much of a chance for a sweeping John Williams score. Spielberg told Keegan, “I was getting into a performance art form of literature and language, without any of my super-strengths that I could turn to make something magically stand out to audiences. It was an experience I’ve always desired to have and never allowed myself to have it until Lincoln came into my life.” Keegan does not report whether he had this idea before hiring Kushner, or whether it developed as Kushner wrote the screenplay. Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review, thinks there is a conflict between Kushner and Spielberg’s styles in the film, but I think not. What Spielberg’s vision meant was that he was going to have to put his talents at the service of the material, which is exactly what he does. The film becomes as much the writer’s film as the director’s.

Kushner delivers. Kushner as the public writer deals with a multiplicity of subjects, one of the things he does best. Who else would have combined Mormons, AIDS, and Roy Cohn as he did in Angels in America? Like Caroline, or Change, this script is about race, and like Angels and Homebody/Kabul, it is brilliantly about politics. It is true to the politics of the period, and without nudging us in the ribs, makes us aware of the similarities to our times, if only in showing that the Republicans and Democrats of 1865 stood for exactly the opposite principles they stand for now. We watch how the president manipulates and wheedles people for the votes he needs. The political Lincoln here seems more like Lyndon Johnson in his arm-twisting days than the stately figure in the Lincoln memorial that Capra loves so well. The sheer entertainment value of the wheeling and dealing could make a film all by itself.

As a writer of drama, Kushner also delivers. One thing he did during the five years he worked on the script was to read extensively about the period, going over transcripts of Lincoln’s meetings. which gave him a good sense of how people talked. Kushner told Randee Dawn for another article in the Los Angeles Times (at this time of the year, there are a lot of articles in the Times about movies, at least those which might be involved in the orgy of awards season), “Shakespeare was so central to 19th-century American speech, that and the King James Bible were so central to the way they spoke in that day.” They were literate people who were not afraid of a well-turned phrase. The film, as we would expect from Kushner, is dialogue heavy, but it is enthralling dialogue. In addition to the elevated language, there is also the political invective of the time, which puts today’s foul-mouthed politicians to shame. Listen to the name-calling in the House scenes. And you think this year’s campaigns were dirty! Kushner also brilliantly uses Lincoln’s known gifts as a storyteller. His Lincoln is always stopping to tell a backwoods tale, mostly to the amusement of those around him, sometimes to their irritation. When he starts one more tale his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton says in irritation, “Not another story.” So in dialogue terms you have three intertwining styles: elevated, invective, and folksy. Kushner mixes them brilliantly. In the character of Lincoln particularly, we see both the public figure, the politician, but also the drama of the private man.

In writing about the first Jurassic Park (1993) in the book Understanding Screenwriting, I criticized Spielberg’s direction of the actors, but pointed out that what was crucial to the success of that film were the dinosaurs. You get actors right but not the dinos and the picture falls apart; you get the dinos right, who cares about the acting. In Lincoln Spielberg realized this was all about the actors handling Kushner’s script. Spielberg has always loved actors, but only later in his career, most notably in Schindler’s List (1993) and Munich, has he been as concerned with character. Here he loves the characters as much as the actors. Kushner, writing for performance, has created a wonderful gallery of people and the producers have hired a marvelous collection of great American actors to play them. With the brilliant exception of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, they are not British actors, whose native language is Shakespeare, but American actors who can speak Kushner’s quintessentially American dialogue. Lincoln’s budget was only about $60 million, lunch money for most Spielberg movies. The physical production is not lavish by Indiana Jones standards, but the money went to actors, and the film gets its money’s worth. I will let all the other reviews tell you how great the specific actors are, but as we have seen before, if you don’t give the actors a good script, it doesn’t matter how great they are. James Agee, in a review collected in the first volume of Agee on Film, writes about a now forgotten 1943 film about Lincoln’s vice president Andrew Johnson titled Tennessee Johnson. He points out that the only actor who looks and sounds authentic 19th Century American is character actor Morris Ankrum playing Jefferson Davis. In Lincoln, they are all Morris Ankrums.

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