‘Lincoln’ is one of those rare films you really must see

The nitty-gritty of greatness.

Over the weekend, I experienced the polar opposites of cinematic achievement: First, AT&T was having a free weekend for premium channels, and while I recorded a number of films I expect to enjoy, one of those channels also showed David Lynch’s execrable “Dune.” I had not watched it since that bitterly disappointing night in 1984 in a Jackson, TN, theater when it first came out. Those few minutes I watched over the weekend convinced me that it wasn’t just that my expectations had been so high at the time. This actually was the worst film I’ve ever seen in my life. Every line of dialogue, every visual touch, every gratuitous plot change from the book (“weirding modules”? Are you kidding me?), was so bad it had to be as intentional as those revolting pustules the make-up people put all over the Baron Harkonnen’s face (something else that wasn’t in the book). Every aspect of it was horrible.

So it was very nice, Sunday evening, to wipe that away by seeing one of the finest new motion pictures I’ve seen in years: “Lincoln.”

Everyone should see this. Every American should, anyway, because it tells so much about who we are and what led to our being what we are. And it tells us something I think we’ve forgotten, which is that great things can be accomplished through our system of representative democracy, even when the barriers and stakes are far greater than anything we face in Washington today.

I could go on and on about the way Daniel Day Lewis inhabits Abraham Lincoln and eerily embodies everything I’ve read about him, or how Spielberg has honed his craft to the very limits of film’s ability to tell a coherent story, while simultaneously making you feel like you’re looking through a time portal at the actual events.

But I’ll just zero in on one thing that contributed to making it so good: The political realism. Most specifically, the way the film not only avoids the temptation to make everything appear to be morally black or white, but rubs your nose in the messiness of real decisions made in a real world.

The main narrative has to do with Lincoln, after his second inauguration, pulling out all the stops to get the House to pass the 13th Amendment, which made slavery unconstitutional. To get the two-thirds, he needs at least 20 more votes even if every Republican supports the measure. This means not only peeling off some Democrats, each defection like pulling teeth out of a dragon, but somehow keeping the peace among the radicals (such as Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones) and conservatives (such as Preston Blair, played by Hal Holbrook) in his own party.

Every stratagem is used, starting with the hiring of some sleazy political operatives (I was amazed to realize after I saw the film that that was James Spader playing lobbyist W.N. Bilbo) to employ every trick they can come up with, starting with raw political patronage and moving on from there. (A key part of the strategy involved offering jobs in the second Lincoln administration to lame-duck members of the other party who had just lost their bids for re-election, but not left office yet.) The Lincoln team even stoops to a half-truth — told by Honest Abe himself — at a critical moment to keep the coalition from blowing up.

It’s very, very messy. No plaster saints here, and feet of clay all over the place. Yet through it all, the ultimate nobility of what is being done, in spite of all the odds, shines through irresistibly. We see how politics, with all its warts, can accomplish magnificent things. At a moment when Democrats and Republicans can’t even seem to do a simple thing like keep from going over a “fiscal cliff” with their hands around each others’ throats, we see how politicians (and they evince all of the worst things we think of when we use that term) can accomplish something great, even when (or perhaps, because?) the stakes are so much greater.

This film not only doesn’t flinch at moral complexity; it wallows in it, to wonderful effect. An excellent example is the scene in which Lincoln muses aloud before his team about all the convoluted, mutually contradictory, logical and constitutional boxes he put himself and the nation in when he decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And the tension builds as we come to fully understand why the Amendment — which would fulfill the dream of freedom that the Proclamation could not — must be passed NOW, before the war ended. And we share Lincoln’s intense, focused urgency.

No significant aspect of Lincoln’s public character is missing from this portrait, including the delight that both he and his audiences took in his jokes. (But not all the people all of the time — Secretary of War Edwin Stanton storms out rather than listen to a funny story at a tense moment.) And at the end, after all the deal-making and maneuvering and fiddling and pushing and pulling and playing to venality and petty egos — one is left believing that Abraham Lincoln was a greater man than any marble statue could ever convey. I don’t know how to explain to you how the film achieves that; it just does.

I suppose there will be some people who just don’t get it — black-and-white, concrete thinkers who will be disturbed at the honest portayal of the messiness of politics as it was practiced in 1865. The neo-Confederates who think the Lincoln would originally have kept slavery if he could preserve the Union is some sort of great “gotcha” won’t get it. Nor will those like the local political activist who, a few days ago, said on Facebook that “Lincoln was not a good man” because his attitudes about racial equality weren’t a perfect match for those of a 21st-century “progressive.”

But seeing “Lincoln” may be among the best chances they’ll ever have to see that reality is broader, and often more inspiring, than their narrow perspectives on it.

No-holds-barred 19th-century lobbying in all its grubby glory.

113 thoughts on “‘Lincoln’ is one of those rare films you really must see

  1. Brad

    I’m going to have to see this again and again, to catch all the details I missed the first time. Including little things, like some of the inspired casting choices. I mentioned my surprise at realizing that was James Spader as Bilbo. But it was also very cool, as a movie buff, to see Jackie Earle Haley (“Bad News Bears,” “Watchmen“) as Alexander Stephens, and Bruce McGill (“D-Day” in “Animal House”) as Edwin Stanton — and it WORKS!

    Reply
  2. Brad

    Perusing the cast list at IMDB, I’m amazed to see that that was Jared Harris, the Brit from “Mad Men,” playing Ulysses S. Grant!

    With some of the characters, as wonderful as they were, you couldn’t help but say, “There’s Sally Field,” or “Isn’t Tommy Lee Jones doing a great job?” But some of these familiar actors were SO submerged in their characters I didn’t even stop to think about who they were…

    Reply
  3. Steven Davis II

    Did they not have lighting in the budget? Ever clip I’ve seen looks like it was shot at dusk inside a room with the blinds closed.

    Reply
  4. Brad

    The film uses shadow (what I’d expect in interior scenes before the electric light) to good effect. Maybe not as well as Coppola did in “The Godfather,” but pretty well.

    Speaking of the book — I WAS waiting until I finished the book that was used as a basis (Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin) — but I just couldn’t wait that long. I’m only up to the point right after Lincoln’s nomination in 1860. Good book. I’m learning a lot not only about politics, but the basic texture of life in the middle of the 19th century in this country.

    Reply
  5. Michael Rodgers

    @Brad,
    Everything you are saying is stupid and wrong. Oh, wait, I’m not @SDII.
    Everything you are saying is brilliant and right. Oh, wait, I’m not the brick wall, left-wing-hack syncophant that @SDII thinks I am.
    OK, here’s what I really think: I very much look forward to seeing this movie.

    Reply
  6. Scout

    David Strathairn (Seward) is always great. Jared Harris was also Moriarty in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes. That’s where I knew him from.

    It was kind of troubling how close the amendment came to not passing. I kept thinking how it could never happen like that today – with the media everywhere – the half truth that Lincoln had to tell would surely have been called out if it happened like that today. That’s all I’ll say about that for those that haven’t seen it.

    Steven, I think pretty much in the 1860’s, lighting was not in the budget.

    Reply
  7. Steve Gordy

    Two other things: Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln underscores how much effort the President had to expend just to keep his wife from going over the edge. The second is that Tommy Lee Jones did a marvelous job of humanizing Thaddeus Stevens, who is traditionally portrayed as a bitter zealot.

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  8. Silence

    Brad – not to nitpick but you forgot Jackie Earle Haley’s seminal work as the Cutter, “Moocher” in 1979’s cycling hit “Breaking Away”. One of my all time favorite movies!

    Reply
  9. bud

    But I’ll just zero in on one thing that contributed to making it so good: The political realism. Most specifically, the way the film not only avoids the temptation to make everything appear to be morally black or white, but rubs your nose in the messiness of real decisions made in a real world.
    -Brad

    That “black and white” comment pretty well sums up most period movies. All this black and white depiction of events is very offputting. The previews and still images for Lincoln look incredibly authentic. I look forward to seeing this film.

    Reply
  10. Jean Smolen

    I’ve read a lot of reviews and comments on ‘Lincoln” but yours was the best – you nailed everything that makes the movie so amazing. Like you, I didn’t recognize James Spader and marveled at the outstanding performances of every actor in the movie. There should be an Oscar for casting.

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  11. Brad

    Thanks, Jean. I hadn’t intended to write a full review, just some stream-of-consciousness observations, but I guess it came out about that length (although it would be more polished were I writing a review for print).

    I guess it’s an old habit — the first writing I did for any newspaper was movie reviews. It was when I was a copy editor at The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun in the mid- to late 70s. I had to have an outlet for writing, so I did reviews in my spare time, being reimbursed by the paper for the price of the ticket.

    I reviewed such memorable new releases as the original “Star Wars,” and “All the President’s Men.”

    Reply
  12. Brad

    Yep, I just checked — I wrote 1,000 words. Column length (that is, column length for ME — syndicated columns run closer to 750). After all those years, whenever I set out to actually SAY something, I tend to think in increments of a thousand words…

    Reply
  13. Brad

    And Silence… truth be told, when I see Jackie Earle Haley, I first think of “Moocher” in “Breaking Away.” But I mentioned the other two because I thought more people would remember those roles.

    Personally, I never much liked “Bad News Bears.” I’ve always found Walter Matthau off-putting. Not a big fan of Tatum O’Neal/Jodie Foster (I had to look it up to remember which one of those two it was) either. Nor was it Vic Morrow’s greatest role…

    But “Breaking Away” was awesome.

    Reply
  14. Brad

    Wikipedia notes that “Stephens was extremely sickly throughout his life. He often weighed less than 100 pounds,” citing Bruce Catton as a source.

    Reply
  15. Steven Davis II

    @Brad – So Michael can badmouth me, but my responses are banned. You got a kid or grandkid in his class that’s on the verge of failing Alegebra I?

    Reply
  16. Brad

    That complaint from Steven is one of several of his in a row on the same theme, the first one beginning, “If you’re going to crack open the door to personal attacks…,” followed by some personal attacks.

    That is apparently a reference to a series of comments above from Michael Rodgers, starting with this one.

    First, I edited that comment before allowing it. The original version was more in the sort of tone that SDII routinely aims at others here on the blog — which is unusual for Michael.

    And I thought hard about Michael’s next two comments, but individually, neither of them stepped over the line.

    Now, since Steven seems mystified, here’s the reason why I allowed those, and not Steven’s first few efforts at retaliation:

    I have never made a secret of, or offered any apologies for, the double standard I allow on this blog: There’s a line I don’t let anyone step over, at least not intentionally. But I let PEOPLE WHO USE THEIR REAL NAMES in commenting more leeway in approaching that line.

    At least, that’s the theory. In practice, because I more often err on the side of allowing rather than not allowing, Steven gets away with a lot of borderline stuff intended to insult, demean, or tear down others on the blog, simply because that’s sort of SOP for him (and I take grief from other readers about it). But I guess Steven doesn’t see that.

    Reply
  17. Kathryn Fenner

    SD II so often doesn’t get it. I wonder how much of that is real, and how much is trumped-up faux grievance.

    See also, dishing it out but not taking it.

    Reply
  18. Steven Davis II

    “That complaint from Steven is one of several of his in a row on the same theme, the first one beginning, “If you’re going to crack open the door to personal attacks…,” followed by some personal attacks.”

    It’s called completion. If you’re going to allow someone to do something, here’s my submission. Not that difficult to understand.

    @Kathryn – When have I ever “not taken it”?

    Reply
  19. Silence

    @ Brad – It would have been fairly easy for me to create a fake public persona. Let’s just say I wanted to call myself “Wad Brarthen”. I could then go register an email account – say “wad.brarthen666@gmail.com” and upload a grainy poorly lit (Fenner style) webcam photo as my Gravatar. I could top it off by setting up a FaceBook, LinkedIn account etc. How would you know if I was real or not? I could drop a few dollars on some fake business cards, maybe even drop by Adco one afternoon and introduce myself. Then I could get away with saying a lot more stuff….

    Reply
  20. bud

    After watching Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter it will be interesting to see which portrayal is more realistic. Seriously that was a truly awful movie. When I first saw the trailers I thought, wow, what a ridiculous idea and had no intention of seeing the thing. Then my wife suggested the book was really good and she rented the movie. About 1/3 of the way in I gave up on this nonsensical piece of crap. Then it got worse. Did you know the Confederate army was largely manned by vampires? And they could only be killed by silver bullets. No wonder they were so successful early in the war until Lincoln recognized the danger and had all the silver in Washington melted down and shipped to Gettysburg where Meades army was able to save the day.

    Reply
  21. Michael Rodgers

    I expressed my opinion of @SD2’s contribution to this post in particular and to the blog in general. Then, after finally getting a response in through the mediator, @SD2 besmirched my professional ethics, as a high school math teacher.

    Reply
  22. debralynnhook

    Saw this last night with my youngest and Steve. Reminded me of Social Network, in that it took dry, dry, stuff, made us wallow in it, and surprised us with how fascinating the gory details can be. I loved this movie so much, could see it again and again and again . Thanks for a great review.

    Reply
  23. Steven Davis II

    I didn’t “besmirched” anything, I simply asked why someone with a PhD in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics would decide to teach 9th grade Algebra rather than work as a scientist for a large corporation or if wanting to teach, not teach at a higher education level where you’ll make more than minimum wage.

    Reply
  24. Beth Tally

    After I read the book “Team of Rivals,” I came away with two very distinct feelings –
    1) – Relief – “Gee, it’s always been this way.”

    and

    2) – Agony – “Gee, it’s always been this way.”

    Reply
  25. Brad

    And Steven, I’m assuming that he finds teaching a meaningful thing to do with his life.

    And because I assume that, it doesn’t occur to me to ask. Maybe it’s because I deliberately spent a whole career in a line of work that paid a lot less than I could have made doing any one of a number of things. I only made decent pay the last few years, as a top editor and vice president of the company…

    And I did it because I felt most useful doing that, given the skills I had.

    Reply
  26. Steven Davis II

    Hey, whatever floats your boat. I know people who teach because they loved to work with children… not any that went on to get a PhD in a hard science only to teach basic math courses. Most that got PhD’s got it in something like education administration with the goal of being a principle or superintendent.

    Reply
  27. Brad

    I did.

    What I didn’t do was become 22 again, and go back and go to medical school or law school, or any of the other things I might have done that would likely have led to a great deal more pay than a newspaper career.

    And if I’d spent those 35 years gaining experience doing what I do now, I’d likely have made more money over the years than I did.

    But my point isn’t to bemoan the low pay of a journalist. I don’t regret my newspaper career. I was just explaining to you why somebody might choose a lower-paying career over making more money.

    Reply
  28. Brad

    Actually, my dream job — just pure fun, without any regard to social relevance — would be to direct movies. But I never had any idea how to get there, and couldn’t just do the go-to-L.A.-and-wait-tables-until-I-get-a-break thing because I had a family to support. Which was a good thing, because it grounded me in a community that I cared about serving, rather than just doing what pleased me…

    Reply
  29. Scout

    I found the portrayal of Lincoln’s personality most interesting. He seemed to come across as kind of distant and aloof yet with an inner calm/joviality and you would think that maybe he wasn’t that engaged when something would trigger him and he would prove to be very much engaged and focused and tell about it in excruciating detail.

    Reply
  30. Silence

    @ Wad Brarthen – you forgot the grainy poorly lit webcam gravatar picture….and speld ur name rong.

    @Brad Warthen – my dream job is also to direct movies. Probably not the same movies you’d like to direct though. Bow-chicka-bow-wow!

    Reply
  31. Brad

    Looking back at Silence’s comment… “How would you know if I was real or not? I could drop a few dollars on some fake business cards, maybe even drop by Adco one afternoon and introduce myself. Then I could get away with saying a lot more stuff….”

    … I suddenly realized — I just let him walk out! And he was Keyser Söze!!!

    Reply
  32. Brad

    Notice how my avatar is an EXTREME CLOSEUP. That’s because, silly me, I always thought the things should be clearly recognizable. How else can you make anything out, the picture is so tiny?

    But SOME people use it as another screen, rather than as relevant information…

    Of course, my glasses are missing. But that’s because I couldn’t see the little turn-around screen on my camera to see whether it was focused, with my bifocals on.

    Well, partly that. Partly vanity.

    Reply
  33. Silence

    I could be Keyser Söze or maybe even Tyler Durden.
    Truth be told – I’ve got a Hawaii driver’s license in my desk drawer that says I’m a 25 year old organ donor named McLovin.

    Reply
  34. Dan

    This is a great blog and constantly opens my mind to other views and reasoning. Even though it got off subject, glad a few of the more considerate commentators finally called Steven Davis on his rudeness and lack of empathy.

    Reply
  35. Kathryn Fenner

    My photo was taken with PhotoBooth, and is somewhat obscured intentionally. It is clearer than anyone else’s headshot except Brad’s.

    We all know what Brad looks like b/c he’s a celebrity!

    Reply
  36. Michael Rodgers

    Thank you Kathryn. And your comment about Brad being a celebrity also gets to my point. Brad is completely wrong that real people are treated better here than anonymous people.

    If I criticized a real person’s comments and that real person turned around and criticized me personally or professionally, well, OK. We’re both real people, and we both know each other’s professions and families, etc. We’re friends.

    If I criticized an anonymous person’s comments and that anonymous person turns around and criticizes me personally or professionally, whoa. Totally inappropriate. Criticize my comments, go for it, please do, I want pushback on what I’m saying. But ignore my comments and ask me disingenuous questions about my personal or professional life? No. Totally inappropriate.

    It doesn’t make sense at all that an anonymous person can put me in a situation where I now have to answer questions about my current career, my educational background, and my career choices here on a blog post about a movie. What is this, a job interview, a date, what? I already have a job and a wife. And my goodness, I already bore you all to death with my relevant comments!

    Reply
  37. Brad

    Michael, the reasons you state are the reasons I have a double standard. I’m sorry if the policy hasn’t been apparent to you. (Maybe it’s because you don’t see all the anonymous comments I simply don’t allow.) I don’t claim to administer it perfectly. Every instance is a separate judgment call.

    Reply
  38. Kathryn Fenner

    Yes, Michael, I have felt just that. You said it well. Not about boring us, though!

    I am trying to just ignore a certain anonymous snark generator, but sometimes I slip!

    I wonder if I ever run into this person IRL….Spooky, huh?

    Reply
  39. Michael Rodgers

    @Brad,

    Real people don’t make comments that come anywhere close to any line that you have, because we have our own lines that are generally much, much stricter than yours. You are a celebrity and you have your own blog in which you tell everything about yourself. We are not and do not.

    Anonymous people don’t have their own lines, so they go past our lines, up to and over your line all the time. They get to go past our lines ALL THE TIME.

    Reply
  40. Michael Rodgers

    @Brad,
    To get specific, am I going to try to sneak in curse words or offensive acronyms? Heck, no. Yet anonymous commenters not only try but succeed. Thus anonymous posters are given (perhaps because they take it — freedom’s just another word, and they have nothing to lose) much more of a playground. Do you want a playground for anonymous posters or do you want to host a debating society. I though you wanted the latter, but maybe I’m wrong?

    Reply
  41. Michael Rodgers

    Please see my point, which you’re nearly getting with this comment.

    You said you had to edit a comment of mine and that doing so was unusual. And you also said, “Steven gets away with a lot of borderline stuff intended to insult, demean, or tear down others on the blog, simply because that’s sort of SOP for him….”

    Why is it SOP for him to go to your border and unusual for me to do so? It’s not just our personality differences and my vastly superior intelligence, education, happiness level, health, attractiveness level, sense of humor, and, above all, humility.

    Reply
  42. Steven Davis II

    @Michael – “If I criticized an anonymous person’s comments and that anonymous person turns around and criticizes me personally or professionally, whoa. Totally inappropriate.”

    That’s simply your opinion. See what can happen when you use your real name online? If I were to really dig I could probably find out more about you (and your family) than you know about yourself. This is by no means to be taken as a threat, just as a statement that if you want to be yourself online, be prepared to deal with the negative results that can come from doing so. What I found out took me about 30 seconds in a simple Google search.

    That being said, you can call me “Steven Davis II”.

    Reply
  43. Silence

    As a sometimes (two times!) disallowed commenter, the double standard is apparent.

    My current photo is also me and clear.

    Reply
  44. Michael Rodgers

    Finally, yes, Brad, you have the right policy for the right reasons, and I’m glad of that. Unfortunately, you aren’t implementing your policy, you’re only stating it.

    The evidence you presented that you are implementing your policy is that you deny approval to many more anonymous commenters than to real life commenters. I suggest that this evidence has much more to do with the nature of anonymous commenters than with your policy.

    For example, if @SD2 changed from an anonymous commenter to a real life commenter, he would get fewer comments denied, not because of your policy, but because of his. He would self-monitor instead of outsourcing his monitoring to you (and to us).

    If you wish to continue to have anonymous commenters, I suggest you actually implement your policy by requiring the following two things from every anonymous commenter:

    (1) Every comment must be on topic.
    (2) No comment may be about other people’s personal or professional life, except if such comment is respectful and on point.

    These two things form the line that real life commenters already try to toe. Please hold anonymous commenters, if you continue to allow them, to the same high standards.

    Reply
  45. Kathryn Fenner

    How about no personal remarks of any kind towards identified people by unidentified people? Seems fair to me.

    Reply
  46. bud

    This is kind of sad. Brad posts a very good piece on the Lincoln movie. Then somehow half the posts are snarky comments completely unrelated to the original post. This movie appears to be of such a quality that it deserves a better discussion. Perhaps there is something in the movie that’s worth criticizing and certainly would be appropriate for discussion. But all this unrelated snarkyness is in bad taste.

    My advice to Michael, just ignore SD II. You’re a much better person than to stoop to his level.

    Reply
  47. Mark Stewart

    Steven’s last comment has, once again, set a new low for self-revelatory utterances.

    Those of us who use our real names are likely to do so because we do not live in fear of repercussions for our statements on this blog – or elsewhere. I am accountable for my words and actions in the “real” world. Why should it not be the same here? I do grant that in a state capital and on a blog such as this that there are legitimate reasons for some commentators to comment outside of their public personae. We are all, as fellow commenters, probably the better for it, too.

    You view us as Red Coats marching back from Concord Bridge and wonder why we don’t skulk along through the under brush to snipe as you do. But we see it differently. This is not a war. This is a social and political commentary blog – a sort of community effort. Honor, empathy, open-mindedness, integrity and civitas are not tossed aside when we scroll down to the “comment” box. We aren’t perfect in real life and we aren’t perfect in our comments here online. But we all should feel accountable – whether anonymous or not.

    Apparently, you operate from an alternate frame of reference.

    Reply
  48. Kathryn Fenner

    When SD II says “see what can happen when you use your real name” and you indulge him, you are discouraging the rest of us who post under our real names from doing so. Sure, there’s a lot of info out there about most of us, but having it twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools is not conducive to our continued participation.

    There are plenty of conflicted or sore points that none of us wishes to be grilled on. We make hard decisions and do not want to be taunted about them.

    Reply
  49. Doug Ross

    Are you going to allow personal comments about others from people like BJ (aka J) who YOU know but we don’t?

    If my name is attached to it, I will say it to anyone directly.

    Reply
  50. Brad

    This applies to all anonymous posters, J included.

    Now, that said, something that will be helpful is if all of my real-name people refrain from talking about the anonymous people, and let’s move on. I’m not TELLING in y’all’s case, just asking. Yes, I know y’all have been provoked a lot, but let’s call this a new day and move on.

    In reference to Bud’s comment, any other thoughts about “Lincoln”?

    Reply
  51. Brad

    Oh, and back up to the opposite extreme… how many agree with me on “Dune” being the worst movie ever made (certainly the worst with a significant budget, which rules out Ed Wood’s creations)?

    Here’s a web item that lists “10 Things David Lynch Needlessly Added to Dune,” and it’s not a bad list. Except that he puts the “weirding modules” at No. 9, whereas they’d have been No. 1 for me. And he mentions the Baron’s gross, unnecessary festering pustules only in passing, whereas that would make No. 2 on my list. But he makes some good points otherwise.

    I’ll never forgive Lynch for that. He went SO far out of his way to completely ruin a great sci-fi story.

    Reply
  52. Steven Davis II

    Brad, if you install an Ignore feature, your problems would be resolved. Your monitoring time would be cut by 90%. I’d Ignore a handful of people, all but a handful would ignore me, etc…

    Reply
  53. Brad

    Wrong question. Question should be, “What’s NOT wrong with ‘Dune,’ the movie.”

    Start with that list I link to above. The writer of that post explains one of the core problems pretty well in his discussion of “weirding modules:”

    “Gone was all of Herbert’s wonderful exposition of the Fremen as fierce, implacable warriors — you could have given these things to your average kindergarten class and achieved the same result! One of the novel’s most interesting features was an idea of a futuristic military culture where hand-to-hand combat was the principle means of battle. But post-Star Wars audiences wanted their damn ray-guns (or so Lynch seemed to believe), and ray-guns they got… clever take on them, but in the end — just ray-guns.”

    I wouldn’t even go so far as to call the modules “a clever take on” ray-guns. They essentially took the idea of “The Voice” — a subtle Bene Gesserit skill of issuing commands in a tone perfectly pitched to make the hearer inclined to obey — and turned it into an extremely cheesy, low-budget-looking device for blowing stuff up.

    Basically, Lynch threw out things that were essential to the whole flavor of the novel. Herbert envisioned a time in which humans had turned away from technology largely, from computers to modern weapons, and fallen back on the development of HUMAN abilities to superlative levels — the Mentat ability to process information logically, the deep intuitive skills of the Bene Gesserit, the supreme hand-to-hand combat skills of the Fremen, the top Atreides soldiers, and to a lesser extent the Sardaukar.

    Lynch took all that and just blasted it into the garbage with his “weirding modules” (apparently a play on the Fremen term for Lady Jessica’s martial arts skills, which they called “the weirding way of battle”).

    Even things from the movie that he KEPT, he ruined. One of the few technological advances the people in this time had were their defensive force shields (which by the way were less than useless on Arrakis). Herbert visualized an active shield as creating a barely visible shimmering around the protected person, sort of like heat waves coming off hot asphalt. Lynch turned shields into a bizarre cubist mess that made it practically impossible to see what was happening as shielded fighters clashed.

    Lynch’s entirely visual style in this film was as off-putting to me as Tim Burton’s visual style is in everything he makes. There’s a reveling in sheer, unnecessary, uncalled-for UGLINESS in every touch. The list I link to points out one of the many ways this is manifest — turning the seductive Bene Gesserit into women who couldn’t possibly be attractive to anyone.

    And did you see the ornithopters? That’s one of the cooler things in the novel, and I really wanted to see what one might look like, and Lynch gives me this vaguely Art Deco mess that couldn’t possibly fly in any known universe.

    Reply
  54. Brad

    By the way, both Susanincola and SDII tried to continue the above civility conversation, and I deleted both comments.

    To Susan I apologize, and offer the explanation that it’s not that you said anything wrong or unkind, but you WERE speaking personally of another poster, and I’m trying to draw a line on that…

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  55. bud

    Never saw Dune so I’m not qualified to rate it. Some of the worst I’ve ever seen:

    1. Pearl Harbor
    2. Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter
    3. Gigli
    4. Pokemon Movie
    5. Romeo and Juliet the Musical (with Leonardo Decaprio)
    6. A Christmas Carol: The Musical (with Kelsey Grammer)
    7. Fritz the Cat (an animated X-rated movie)

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  56. Brad

    I just got carried away, Silence. I really, really hated it.

    Bud, I’m with you on “Pearl Harbor.” The Romeo and Juliet, I saw and didn’t like, but some of my kids liked it, and I guess that’s a plus — if it turns kids on to Shakespeare.

    I haven’t seen the others.

    As for Steven’s “ignore” suggestion — first, I don’t know how to do that. I suppose I could get someone to help me, but I really don’t like the sound of it. I think too much of our public life today is spent tuning out people with whom we disagree or simply dislike. One of the purposes of this blog is to try to get past those barriers (which so many blogs cater to and harden) and encourage people who disagree to listen to each other and engage constructively. Because if we don’t learn/relearn how to interact across partisan and other barriers, representative democracy is doomed…

    Reply
  57. Silence

    bud, – at the risk of being banninated by Brad’s new totalitarian comment policy – We have always been at war with Eurasia –

    I cannot believe that you actually saw all of those horrible movies. Ten points from gryffindor! The only one of those that I ever tried to watch was “Fritz the Cat” and I only made it about 10 minutes in before I gave up. Please, do yourself a favor, bookmark “rottentomatoes.com” or another movie review site on your browser and consult it before you watch a movie.

    Now, go forth and repent!

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  58. Brad

    No, that was yesterday. We have always been at war with EASTasia. Eurasia is, and has always been, our ally.

    You’re bucking to be an unperson, Comrade. That’s double-plus ungood.

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  59. bud

    I saw the top 2 with my wife. I never dreamed that the Pearl Harbor movie would be so bad. I saw the Pokemon movie with my kids when that whole craze was trendy. As for the other 4 I never saw them in their entirety. Perhaps that would disqualify me from giving them a rating.

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  60. Silence

    Unperson, sort of fitting for an Unparty. Now i’m going to go return the signed photo of Kenneth McMillen, Jurgen Prochnow, Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sting and David Lynch that I got you for Christmas. I am so disappointed.

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  61. Brad

    OK, I’ll admit one thing — Sting as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen was a good bit of casting. He had the right attitude for the part — even though he didn’t look like the character physically.

    Feyd-Rautha was supposed to be this imposing, bulky, broad-shouldered guy, which supposedly provided a stark contrast to Muad-Dib’s Fremen-like wiriness during the final knife fight. But Sting looked as stringy as MacLachlan SHOULD have looked, but didn’t.

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  62. Brad

    And Max von Sydow as Liet-Kynes was a good idea…

    But Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck? No way the rough-hewn Gurney would ever come across as that patrician…

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  63. Doug Ross

    I sat thru Pokemon as well with my kids. Those movies don’t count because they aren’t geared for adults.

    For me, it’s Mamma Mia (the menopausal musical) and whichever Star Wars movie introduced Jar Jar Binks… but then, I was one of the few Americans who never watched the original Star Wars trilogy when they came out. Terrible acting in those.

    Tommy the musical was also pretty awful.

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  64. bud

    Doug, I generally enjoy kids movies. I thought all the Disney animated films were enjoyable. The Shrek and Toy Story films were also worthwhile. I could even halfway tolerate Barney and The Power Rangers. But the Pokemon movie was simply horrible. I won’t give it a pass because it was geared toward kids.

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  65. Silence

    bud – I guess you won’t make a very good Pokemon trainer, then.

    Shrek was good, except for the Eddie Murphy “Donkey” character who was annoying. Eddie Murphy is annoying in kids movies, but he was fine in grown up comedies back in the 80’s.

    Toy Story had great voice casting, I thought.

    Does anyone else here watch “Key and Peele”? They had a funny Power Rangers spoof the other week. The Green costumed ranger happened to be black, and the others kept talking about the Black (costumed) Ranger and he thought they were talking about him. It was pretty funny.

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  66. bud

    The Mama Mia movie was bad because of the atrocious mis-casting of the characters. Didn’t anyone stop to think that a movie based on songs should require not just competent but accomplished singers? Pierce Brosnan was simply horrible.

    On the other hand the Mama Mia stage play, which I saw at the Koger Center, was very good. Nothing can beat a live performance provided the singers are good.

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  67. bud

    I hadn’t looked closesly at the screen shot accompanying this post until just now but I must say if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s in color I could easily be convinced it was an actual photograph.

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  68. Doug Ross

    My wife and I saw Lincoln on Friday night. Thought the first third was slow but it was much improved after that. Daniel Day Lewis is an incredible actor… this may have been a better performance than in Gangs of New York which was mesmerizing.

    That said, I was going to make a comment to my wife after the movie but she beat me to it. Her first words when we got outside the theatre were “I guess politicians have always been liars”. That was the undercurrent throughout for me as I watched it — good old “Honest Abe” wasn’t so honest. He was a pragmatist willing to say or approve of anything to help him achieve his goal. The ends justified the means… We’re supposed to believe that only by coercing and bribing congressmen to vote for the 13th Amendment BEFORE the South surrendered, would slavery be abolished. The level of deceit and strong arming required to achieve that goal really leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

    The other part that made me think was during the terms of surrender between Lincoln and the Confererate States VP (aka Kelly Leak from Bad News Bears). The economic impact of the war combined with removing the slave labor had a devastating impact on the South. The lingering distrust and animosity by some Southerners toward “Yankess” is almost understandable in that context.

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  69. Doug Ross

    Oh, and the funniest moment for me in Lincoln was one scene where Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) is modeling a dress for Abe. I couldn’t help but think of that Geico commercial where Mrs. Lincoln asks Abe if she her dress makes her look fat and he struggles with whether to be honest or not.

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  70. Kathryn Fenner

    Yes, Doug. Walter Edgar said something about how the emancipation of the slaves destroyed the South’s “capital” and it really opened my eyes.

    What if there had been a Marshall Plan for the South?

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  71. Brad

    Had that actually never occurred to y’all before? It’s one of the fundamentals of American history. Most of the wealth of the South, which was concentrated in a relatively small portion of the population, was tied up in slaves, and land that had little value without slave labor. It was a system that kept poor whites (and free blacks) down as well as slaves.

    Now that I’ve expressed shock that y’all didn’t realize that, I’ll confess that I never really fully FELT the difference until I started spending time in rural central Pennsylvania several years back. If you drive the country roads up there (or even the Interstate, but you see more on the lesser roads), you see all these prosperous-looking small farms on which the buildings easily date to before 1860. Just one BEAUTIFUL piece of agricultural property after another. Far more than anything I’d ever read or heard before, that drove home for me how broadly prosperous that part of the country was, compared to the South. And all that wealth remained after the war, unlike the plantation system down South.

    The difference between what I saw there, and the tumbledown shacks of a typical country road down here, was really startling…

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  72. Brad

    Oh, and as far as a Marshall Plan is concerned — you can thank John Wilkes Booth for preventing that from happening. Once Lincoln was dead, the radical Republicans were able to drive the agenda…

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  73. Doug Ross

    It wasn’t just the slaves.. it was also the fact that so much infrastructure was destroyed… cities, railroads.

    And I guess my point was that there is a difference between knowing something and feeling it as I did when Jackie Earle Haley was sitting there across from Lincoln. He really provided that sense of “we’re doomed for a LONG time” just with his facial expressions. Makes you understand (even if you don’t agree with) what seems like oversensitivity regarding the Confederate Flag.

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  74. Brad

    You can also get that from hearing the late great Levon Helm sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It brings me closer to my five great-great grandfathers who served the Confederacy (or rather, South Carolina) in that most profoundly tragic of wars…

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  75. Steven Davis II

    Brad – You seem to forget that there was a little thing called the Industrial Revolution occurring around the same time. Now I as a slave owner could house and feed 10 slaves, or buy a piece of machinery that could do the work of 100 slaves for less money. As a business owner what am I going to do?

    What did plantation owners do before they owned slaves?

    Reply
  76. Brad

    Steven, I’m not forgetting the North’s industrial advantage. I’m taking that as a given. What I’m saying is that I never fully internalized, before traveling through the PA countryside, how much more affluent the north was in the agriculture sector alone. And in those days, most people were involved in some way in agriculture.

    Reply
  77. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    The issue was that the Southerners had invested in humans instead of machines. They went with Betamax and wouldn’t have any more money for VHS.

    Reply
  78. Brad

    As for your last question, Steven, in the case of SC, what a lot of the initial slaveholders were before they came here was… slaveholders. In Barbados.

    Now THAT is something I learned from Walter Edgar a number of years ago…

    Reply
  79. Brad

    That, by the way, sets SC apart from a place like Virginia, where the initial white settlers were NOT slaveholders.

    That cultural and historical difference plays into why Virginia did not secede until relatively late in the process. The elites of SC were more adamantly committed to slavery than their counterparts in VA and, obviously, Maryland. And had always been so.

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  80. Brad

    Another way to put it is that my/our SC forebears bear a particularly large share of the burden of responsibility for secession, and the war that resulted.

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  81. Brad

    No. But of the whites who first settled here, a large number were slaveholders from British-held islands in this hemisphere. They were sort of generally referred to as “the Barbadians,” although not all had been specifically in Barbados before coming here.

    They brought with them the particularly brutal form of plantation slavery practiced in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

    That was the upper class of SC at the outset. The landed gentry of Virginia only acquired slaves long after they were established here.

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  82. Brad

    That, of course, is a highly simplified retelling of our initial settlement. Here’s a more detailed version of the arrival of the “Barbadians,” from Walter Edgar’s book.

    He notes that from 1670 to 1690, about 54 percent of white settlers in SC came from Barbados, while a number of others came from other islands in the English West Indies.

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  83. Steven Davis II

    How many of these brutal plantation owners have heirs who occupy offices on the State House grounds today?

    Reply
  84. Mark Stewart

    Brad,

    Weren’t the Virginia tobacco plantations built on indentured servitude though? So while the landowners didn’t have slaves for life, they did have them for a productive 7-8 years. And how long is a slave in the coastal south really good for anyway?

    What always had me wondering was where did these indentured white servants go once released from bondage? Are these the poor whites who beat it up into the hills in the early 1700’s? It would seem unlikely that they would not want to stay around the plantation economy.

    Turning people into chattel didn’t simplify social order – then as much as now. What it did was make the southern social order incredibly complex. Not richly complex; more just really messed up.

    Reply
  85. Michael Rodgers

    Back to the economics issue, here’s a great post (with an illuminating chart) over at The Atlantic. Ta-Nehisi Coates is awesome. He also, in several other recent posts, has some discussion of Lincoln, the movie.

    Reply
  86. Brad

    I have to say I’m not a fan either. The one time I quoted him here, because he brought up something of SC interest, I noted a fallacy in his thinking on the subject.

    Since then, I have found myself a number of times reading something I’ve been linked to by Twitter or some other way and thinking, “There’s a problem here; this doesn’t quite work,” and then I look at the byline and see it’s by Mr. Coates.

    This column Michael refers to is provocative, but also flawed. He draws a parallel between what he sees as the hardening of Southern attitudes in favor of slavery and the rise in the cash value of slaves. To do this, he points to what Thomas Jefferson said, and then contrasts that to the positions of John C. Calhoun and others later.

    In doing this, he misses the fact that Jefferson, a Virginian, was a part of a culture that was more ambivalent toward slavery than any elites in South Carolina EVER were.

    The Civil War didn’t occur as a result of people in the South liking slavery more and more. It resulted from the fact that we’d had one battle after another over whether slavery would be extended into new territories, which was seen as equally critical both to the more anti-slavery Republicans and to the Southern slaveholders.

    Remember, South Carolinians started this war, not “Southerners” in general. A number of things had to happen between the SC secession and Virginia’s late decision to join in — the level of commitment to the idea of fighting to defend slavery was different (at least, until the fighting got started in earnest — then, Virginians can hardly be said to have held back).

    And South Carolinians had been just as adamant about defending their “peculiar institution” in the 1780s as they later were. They just didn’t see it as “necessary” to quit the union and fire on federal troops until 1860-61

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  87. Mark Stewart

    A more pertinent consideration would then be the depletion of South Carolina soils for cotton and the need to move ever westward to secure untapped, fertile lands. South Carolina experienced a population exodus between 1820 – 1860. It wasn’t just loosing people though, plantation owners were expanding their land holdings in the new states and territories to the west. They probably saw containment of slavery as the same thing as inevitable withering. It wasn’t just moral justification of their peculiar institution, it was economic necessity to to push for slavery’s expansion.

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  88. Brad

    That, and the fear of losing their edge in the Senate when and if new nonslave states came into being.

    All of these, and others, are causes that neo-Confederates like to cite in their absurd attempts to claim that the war wasn’t about slavery — even though all of these things arose from the existence of slavery.

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  89. Silence

    I don’t think that Southern states had the resources to be competitive in the 19th century industrial revolution. Capital mainly, but also energy, technology, transportation, and proximity to markets. Factories didn’t really boom in the south until the advent of air conditioning, I think.
    Part of the conflict was that the industrial north was beginning to outstrip the agrarian south in wealth generation and political clout.

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  90. Mark Stewart

    I don’t think the South had the mindset to innovate. Improve, yes, but not to evolve. Not much has changed in that regard over the last 150 years.

    It’s more a simple preference for the status quo.

    Reply

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