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February 15, 2013

TT: Talky talkies

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column, I discuss an aspect of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln that has been overlooked by its critics. Here's an excerpt.

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If you Google "Lincoln" and "talky," you'll get two million matches, very few of which are referring to the Gettysburg Address. Whether they liked it or not, pretty much everybody who's seen Steven Spielberg's biopic seems to think that it's...well, kind of wordy. In an age when the average length of time between explosions in big-budget Hollywood movies has been officially computed (by me, anyway) to be 26.4 seconds, that's an attribute sufficiently surprising to inspire near-universal comment.

For those of us who see more plays than films, though, it's no surprise at all. The script of "Lincoln" is by Tony Kushner, the author of "Angels in America," who is not a screenwriter by trade but a playwright. Plays are talky by definition, and Mr. Kushner's plays are really talky, right down to the titles....

Lincoln.jpgThe only thing that surprised me about "Lincoln" is that most of the critics who reviewed the film seem not to have grasped what should have been apparent right from the start, which is that "Lincoln" is at bottom a play with pictures, not a screenplay. Yes, Mr. Spielberg tarted it up with "Gone With the Wind"-style crowd scenes and snippets of "Saving Private Ryan"-type carnage, but for the most part he seems to have taken what Mr. Kushner gave him and run with it. John Podhoretz, who reviewed "Lincoln" for the Weekly Standard, a political journal, called it "a drawing-room political drama." That's right on the nose, since virtually everything of consequence that happens in "Lincoln" could just as easily have happened on a stage. In scene after scene, the characters sit in a room talking politics, and no attempt is made to leaven their conversations with action of any kind.

What's more, the talk is essential, since the subject of the film, the congressional debate over the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in America, will be all but unintelligible to viewers who don't know the history of the Civil War going in. But Messrs. Spielberg and Kushner operated on the assumption that what Lincoln and his colleagues have to say is so inherently interesting that the audience will listen to it--and their assumption was correct.

While I've been skeptical about most of Mr. Kushner's plays, I'm delighted that he and his famous collaborator have succeeded in persuading large numbers of Americans to sit still and listen to a movie. The contemporary notion that it's somehow inherently bad for a film to be "talky" has done grave damage to the culture of American movie-making...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 15, 2013 12:00 AM

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