Speeches about freedom, human dignity and the equality of all people—not excepting people grown in a vat—figured in two of the big movies released at the end of this year’s campaign season. Coincidence or fate? You would be bound to choose the latter if you were to take Cloud Atlas seriously, as its makers, fortunately, don’t always do. Adopt their premise provisionally, though, and both the film world and the elections take on the appearance of so many airborne water droplets, which in late October 2012 shifted into position within a vast meteorological pattern and so looked very like a whale.
And if you were to take Lincoln seriously? Then you would be in harmony with filmmakers who fool with none of the movie all of the time. Solemnly denying that weather is anything more than a circumstance, the Lincoln team sees history not as a grand design in the heavens but an endlessly uncertain struggle in the mud. As the editorial writers would put it, the contrast is stark. The contrast seemed pretty stark in the elections, too—and this may have had something to do with my having welcomed Cloud Atlas and Lincoln almost equally, as I certainly couldn’t do for the candidates. Here, at least, I had no obligation to decide and then hold on grimly for the results. The movies let me enjoy the struggle for freedom both ways, as historical meditation and epic silliness.
To be fair, not all of Cloud Atlas is silly. Much of it strikes me instead as preachy—more so than Lincoln—though never leadenly so, given how the team of writers and directors (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski) translated the source novel by David Mitchell into the realm of flagrant movieness. If stars are the constants in commercial cinema, and individual films merely instances of the adventures that celebrities live, then Cloud Atlas is a little film industry all in itself. To watch it is to play a game of hide-and-seek with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, finding them underneath the different applications of costume and makeup as they go from story to story.
There are six stories in all, which on the most clever but least substantial level form a chain across the ages. Its links are the artworks and tales that one generation leaves behind for the next. For readers who want to know the sequence of these testimonies—those who don’t should drop down a couple of paragraphs—I will unpuzzle them.
A young American attorney, sent to a plantation in the Pacific in 1849, comes to recognize the evil of slavery. He writes an account of his experiences—and in 1936 this book becomes the bedside reading of a supremely talented young English composer who is raffish, gay and trapped in fealty to an old tyrant in Edinburgh. The musician’s letters, along with the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” that he composes as his artistic legacy, find their way into the hands of an investigative reporter in San Francisco, who in 1973 takes heart from them as she goes about uncovering wrongdoing at a nuclear plant. By 2012, this reporter has been absorbed whole into a story, as the heroine of a series of mystery novels—and so her valor becomes known to a shambling London publisher, whose laughable misdeeds land him in a nursing home that’s run like a prison.
A late-life burst of courage enables the publisher to escape his captivity and write a memoir, which is later made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, or someone like him. (“I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!” Hanks thunders, apparently as his way of checking out of a posh hotel.) In the year 2144, in Neo-Seoul (Old Seoul by this time is mostly under water), this scrap of antique cinema falls illicitly into the hands of a member of a genetically engineered underclass. Fascinated by it, she becomes the figurehead for a group of insurgents and makes her own heroic address, which by the time of the final story in Cloud Atlas—two centuries after the Neo-Seoul rebellion—has become sacred writ. In the wake of a global catastrophe, the twenty-second-century Korean slave is now regarded as a prophet by a band of neo-Neolithic villagers, who live in terror of painted cannibals and a top-hatted devil. As Cloud Atlas ends, the bravest of these sci-fi pastoralists spins his own yarn, and so creates the next version of life’s ever-evolving travelogue-symphony-whodunit-movie-manifesto.
Of course, the summary I’ve just given is not much good, because Cloud Atlas does not present a neatly stretched-out chain but an engrossing tangle. A large part of the fun lies in seeing how the links overlap one another: how a car is run off a bridge into San Francisco Bay, for example, at the same moment of screen time that fleeing rebels in Neo-Seoul drop into the sewers. Even more fun comes from seeing how the actors change from lifetime to lifetime.
Some of these transmigrations hint at the possibility of a spiritual education. Hanks, who is the most richly developed of the stars, begins as a murderous, rapacious slave-plantation doctor and eventually redeems himself as a twenty-fourth-century goatherd, having lived in the interim as a grasping hotel clerk, a conscience-stricken nuclear scientist and a book-scribbling Cockney boxer. Jim Broadbent similarly improves himself over the centuries, going from brutal ship’s captain to viciously selfish old composer to crooked but lovable book publisher.
I note, though, that the women in this chain somehow need no spiritual education. Halle Berry is blameless in her suffering in earlier lives and unfailingly brave in the later ones (as the San Francisco reporter and a twenty-fourth-century scientist). Similarly, Doona Bae (the Korean actress best known for The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) always stands up for what’s right, whether she’s a nineteenth-century housewife, a twentieth-century sweatshop worker or a twenty-second-century slave-clone. Pretty much the only woman in the film who is ethically unsavory is Nurse Noakes, the matron who bullies Jim Broadbent in the 2012 episode—but then she’s played by Hugo Weaving, who is the face of evil in every age and generation.
So much for karma. For all the dialogue in Cloud Atlas about the courage to choose, the movie locks most of its characters into a pattern that looks a lot more like destiny than free will. I’m not surprised: high-gloss muddle-headedness has long been the signature of both Tykwer and the Wachowskis, who have made a practice of undermining their own ideas (or exposing their emptiness) through flashy over-elaboration. In Cloud Atlas, though, there is such a superabundance of settings and production designs and, especially, different narrative tones that you’re always aware that the filmmakers have options, even when their characters do not. Sheer lavishness substitutes for freedom.
I particularly liked the 1973 and 2012 segments that Tykwer directed (the first playing like a blaxploitation thriller, the second like a high-end British TV comedy) and the Wachowskis’ Neo-Seoul episode, envisioned like Blade Runner combined with their own The Matrix. If the climax of Neo-Seoul was too much like The Matrix, with the enlightened heroine calmly mouthing platitudes in the midst of a nonsensical shootout, I could at least be certain that another twist of the chain would soon relieve me of this embarrassment. Similarly, I could endure the patois written for the Wachowskis’ twenty-fourth-century village culture—Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, dey talk pidgin blong far-far people—so long as another strange and wonderful image was sure to appear, and then another.
Take this as a confirmation that the destiny implied by Cloud Atlas is illusory. For the first time, I watched stories by the Wachowskis and Tykwer and felt free to enjoy them.
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Here, though, is the paradox of Cloud Atlas in relation to Lincoln. The first wants to tie everything together but makes no contact with our actual political situation. The second resolutely separates itself from us in time, staying true to 1865, and yet tells us a lot that might apply to today’s subjects, such as Barack Obama’s presidency.
Written for the screen by Tony Kushner with all his love of rhetorical flourish and skill at historical exposition, and directed by Steven Spielberg as if the biopic directors of Hollywood’s golden past had collectively taken possession of his body, Lincoln might be the most staid, old-fashioned movie that any major studio will release this season, at least outwardly. Inwardly, it is almost insanely daring.
Like Saving Private Ryan, it begins with images of horrific combat, hand-to-hand and boot-to-face, which color your response to everything that follows. But there’s no further military action in Lincoln, and no physical adventure of any kind. Instead, Spielberg and Kushner give you a political film about the real stuff of politics: arguing, posturing, strong-arming, compromising, bluffing, bullying, buying. The event on which all this concentrates is perhaps the most momentous in American history: the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But the narrative period is so concentrated as to approach real time—practically everything happens in January 1865—and the method of storytelling is defiantly understated. The director of War of the Worlds has now made a movie in which the moment of greatest dramatic tension focuses on inaction: what a congressman refrains from saying in a debate. As for the treatment of the title character, Lincoln may be the first movie to hint that desperation lay beneath Honest Abe’s love of jokes and old stories.
Holding himself stiffly and a little stooped, Daniel Day-Lewis at the outset portrays the Lincoln we’re familiar with: kind, gentle, smiling Abe, our father of sorrows, his light, twangy voice pitched high in the throat, his tempo always patient. He’s the Abe who perches unpretentiously on a wooden box while visiting the troops, letting them ask whatever they like and listening indulgently to whatever they may offer. But some of these soldiers are black, and one of them puts Lincoln on notice that the end of slavery won’t be enough for him—he intends to be finished with subservience altogether. In response to this challenge, Lincoln offers only specimens of stale cracker-barrel humor. They elicit an obliging chuckle from another black soldier but make the first man bridle and the audience squirm.
What’s Lincoln holding back, that he forces unwanted jokes on people? (This isn’t the only example.) The answer emerges as Day-Lewis’s performance moves into less conventional territory for Lincoln movies—extraordinarily long speeches full of political calculation and legal reasoning, and outbursts of temper directed at both his cabinet and his wife, Mary (Sally Field, strung above a high E). Their subject is power: the power that Lincoln feels he needs, that he is frustrated not to have in full, that he worries he has seized illegitimately, that he insists on exerting to pass the Thirteenth Amendment when everyone (even Mary) tells him it can’t be done. Day-Lewis and the filmmakers give us a fiercely resolute Lincoln who is alternately intimate and remote, approachable and masked, and so odd a person that his dreams look like a Guy Maddin film.
People love this man, Mary insists—but though it’s easy to admire the film’s Lincoln, warming to him is nearly impossible. So, in their most daring move of all, Spielberg and Kushner give the audience someone else to love: Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical wing of the Republican Party. As Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones flings thick slabs of ham at the audience, usually after giving them a good chew. That they’re caught so gratefully is testimony to Jones’s delight in the role—every actor longs to speak such lines—but also to the appeal of the film’s tacit argument about our own political situation. Lincoln is about a president who pushes transformative legislation through Congress by compromise, corruption and double-dealing, but above all by securing the support of the most extreme left-wing members of his party.
Why can’t we have a president like that? If we could, then maybe we would experience in real life the profound joy, satisfaction and humility that are the emotional payoffs of Lincoln. Compared with pictures in the contemporary globe-spanning style, the film looks fatally earthbound—but it is moving in a way that the makers of Cloud Atlas can’t even imagine.
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This column recently asked for your attention to The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh’s documentary based on unprecedented interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s security service. A few words are also in order for another Israeli documentary, this one by the distinguished filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz (The Inner Tour, James’ Journey to Jerusalem), based on interviews with nine members of Israel’s military legal corps, who wrote and adjudicated the legal system that Israel put in place in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Law in These Parts is more slowly cumulative in its impact than The Gatekeepers but equally devastating, tracing how serious, responsible, well-intentioned men set out to establish justice in the Occupied Territories and wound up imposing a tyrannical order. Openly acting as a prosecutor, Alexandrowicz adds sting to his indictment by creating a cinematic equivalent to the rules of evidence under the occupation. He controls all of the documents, both the records of the interviews and the testimony of the plaintiffs: the Palestinians who appear exclusively in silent archival footage.
The Law in These Parts has its American theatrical premiere in New York City at Film Forum, November 14–27.
In our issue, Stuart Klawans surveyed the offerings of the Fiftieth New York Film Festival, in “The Delirium Scale.”