Arts and Culture

Twilight of Lincoln

'Breaking Dawn Pt. 2' has hairy werewolves. 'Lincoln' has Abe. The parallels abound. Right?

By Steve Burgess 24 Nov 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week for The Tyee. Read his previous reviews here.

Last summer saw the release of the epic film Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It flopped. Undaunted, the studios have come back with a new approach. Last Friday both Lincoln and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II hit theatres. This time Hollywood intends to catch that same broad audience with two separate movies. It seems only right to review those films together.

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, begins with the great Civil War president (played by Daniel Day Lewis) listening as ordinary soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address. That speech referred to "a great battlefield," and spoke of "a new nation, conceived in liberty," and "a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II, directed by Bill Condon, ends on a great battlefield, testing whether a child conceived by a vampire and a mortal woman can be endured by other vampires who wear old-school hooded cloaks. So in both films the stakes are high.

There are more parallels. The Twilight movies feature werewolves -- large, hairy creatures cloaked in myth. Lincoln features Abe Lincoln. The Twilight series changed the image of some traditional villains by offering up vampires as heroes. In Lincoln, the good guys are all Republicans. Like the heroes of Twilight, the president's Confederate enemies preyed upon human beings. But also like those loveable Twilight vampires, Lincoln was not blameless in pursuit of his goals.

Breaking Dawn Part II is the fifth movie in the Twilight series, all of them based on four books by Stephenie Meyer. The Tony Kushner screenplay for Lincoln is described in the credits as "based in part on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin." But the events that make up the movie Lincoln take up only about five pages of the nearly 1,000-page Team of Rivals (with another half-dozen or so pages devoted to a sub-plot about a secret peace conference). That's not surprising. Team of Rivals only won a Pulitzer Prize, while the Twilight books won the hearts of a gazillion teenage girls. It's much safer to mess around with the Pulitzer-winning material.

Not that Kushner is inventing a lot of supernatural wizardry to appeal to the teen crowd. He has drawn from other sources and augmented his research with some dramatic license in an attempt to illuminate the down-and-dirty politics of Honest Abe's fight to get the 13th Amendment, banning slavery, through a hostile, lame-duck Congress. There's a lot of palaver in Lincoln. Even those roughly familiar with the history of the time are likely to get lost (and bored) at times. But the plot line of Lincoln makes it refreshingly clear that the noble battle for emancipation involved every bit as much deal-making, patronage, and outright corruption as any pork-laden bill tabled in Washington today. It humanizes an episode often seen in retrospect as a holy crusade.

Breaking Dawn Part II goes the other way, with unholy creatures cavorting in inhuman fashion, gifted with super speed and spectacular visual acuity. Based on this depiction, vampirism seems to have no downside at all. It's like the best drugs ever. Seeing the world though the red eyes of the newly-transformed Bella (Kristen Stewart) took me back to my own '70s-era youth spent reading Carlos Castaneda's trippy books about Mexican sorcerer Don Juan and his hallucinogenic plants. I suppose it's an improvement that 21st century teens do not have the option of taking drugs to replicate the immortal blood-sucking experience, or we might see the rise of a brand new industry that would make the cocaine business look boutique.

Breaking Dawn Part II, like Lincoln, has a lot of talk. Eventually though it does get around to a big and rather inventive fight scene. The biggest fight scene in Lincoln involves the president and his wife, Mary (Sally Field). There is no Lincoln sex in Lincoln. There is vampire sex in Breaking Dawn Part II. Vampire sex is in fact shown to be so amazing that Bella coos to hubby Edward (Robert Pattinson) "How are we ever going to stop?"

The answer is that she ends up having an affair with the director, but that's skipping ahead. In Lincoln the more pressing question is how the Civil War will ever stop, and whether the 13th Amendment can be passed beforehand when there is still a sense of military urgency to propel it. President Lincoln must deal with radical abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and conservative Republicans like Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook). He does this while telling so many folksy stories that members of his cabinet sometimes flee the room.

In The Runaways, Kristen Stewart proved herself to be a talented actress, and here she does her best to portray Bella's transformation from a human to a supernatural being. But Day-Lewis is almost certainly Oscar-bound for his ability to transform a historical giant back into a human. Lincoln's large cast includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the president's eldest son, Robert Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, and James Spader as a political henchman.

Breaking Dawn Part II's cast is filled out by no fewer than 10 different young actresses playing Bella's daughter Renesmee at different stages of development. It's distracting. Any minute the little girl seems likely to turn into Bob Dylan.

In both films certain plot developments are inevitable. Lincoln will be assassinated. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) will take his shirt off. The audience knows all this going in. Either way, get ready for the screams.

Ultimately, both audiences may come away with the same emotions. In Lincoln we watch as the 13th Amendment is narrowly passed through Congress, paving the way for the end of slavery. And in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II we see the story end, and with it the entire series. There will be no more Twilight films. Sing it with me, brothers and sisters: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!  [Tyee]

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