December 24, 2012 Shape-Shifting Super-President Wins 2012 Chameleon Award
The supervillain of Amazing Spider-Man #1 is a little-remembered master-of-disguise called the Chameleon. He later received an alter ego (Dmitri Smerdyakov) and backstory (abused brother/servant of Kraven the Hunter), but in 1963 he was just a guy with a face as featureless as an Oscar statue’s.
Which is why I’m asking the Academy Awards to name a new category after him: Best Shape-shifting Performance in a Motion Picture.
My nomination goes to Lincoln.
Much of the credit for mutating Daniel Day-Lewis into our 16th President belongs to the make-up team. I think Spielberg tricked a few of the camera angles too (something Kenneth Branagh did to lesser effect for Robert De Niro in the 1994 Frankenstein). And he probably set his casting director a maximum height requirement as well (when Spielberg shot War of the Worlds in my town, all our local extras had to stand below Tom Cruise’s mighty 5’ 7”).
But Hollywood gimmickry can’t match Day-Lewis’ own Chameleon-like superpowers. At 6′ 2,” he had to stretch himself another two inches to achieve his Lincoln-esque stature. Which might sound easy if you weren’t simultaneously stooping, creating the air of a freakishly tall man desperate to look shorter (because back then Tom Cruise would have been a titan). Add Lincoln’s implausibly high voice, something Day-Lewis imbues with both humility and gravitas, and you have an impersonation equal to the Chameleon’s framing of Spider-Man when he stole those defense plans after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Day-Lewis isn’t the film’s only successful shapeshifter. But his is the only performance that erases the presence of the actor. For all her talent, Sally Fields in a period dress remains Sally Fields in a period dress. The rest of the equally admirable cast of character actors never quite escapes the Where’s Waldo effect. As in: “Hey look, isn’t that the guy who plays Professor X on Alphas?”
But it’s not Day-Lewis who should accept the film’s Chameleon award. It’s Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner. They’re the ones who shapeshifted 2012 into an improbably identical 1865. They’ve proven that the scifi truism, “the future is just like the present only more so,” applies to the past too. Or at least whichever historical snapshot a film-maker decides to dust off and frame anew.
It’s not hard to see why they tackled Lincoln in the age of Obama vs. the Tea Party. A President synonymous with racial change wins a legislative battle in a bitterly divided Congress through the power of compromise. Sound familiar? Spielberg even timed its release during the current lame duck session of Congress, same political timeframe as the film. If Obama had lost in November, or the legislative battle about the fiscal cliff been averted, Lincoln would lose many of its superpowers.
Instead, majority leader Harry Reid adjourned the Senate early last Wednesday for a 5:00 screening, followed by a Q&A with the director, writer and star. (Spielberg had already attended a screening with Obama at the White House.)
But it’s the House of Representatives who should be watching. Tommy Lee Jones reprises his role as Two-Face to give today’s Tea Party a civics lesson in principled compromise. Are you listening Speaker Boehner?
Political shapeshifting isn’t spineless, it’s noble.
“When you think about what we’ve gone through, ” says President Lincoln, “the country deserves us to be willing to compromise on behalf of the greater good.” No, wait. That was Obama last week, talking about the debt deal. (These time travel plots are so confusing.)
I assume it’s coincidental that Tommy Lee resembles Thad Stevens less than he does John Boehner. To be fair, it’s actually Boehner who is a more attractive version of Jones. As if Boehner had been cast in a real life adaptation of the film. But instead of ending slavery, Boehner has to save America from the Debtpocalypse.
Or is that Governor Norquist’s job? Like Thad, the author of the sacred “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” bit the ideological bullet and endorsed Boehner’s “Plan B,” what would have been a tax hike on millionaires to prevent one on everybody making over $400,000 (the amount, coincidentally, Congress sets for the President’s salary).
But the Tea Party still said no, as they will to any compromise. Lincoln is just too hard a history lesson for the GOP to study right now. They just watched their last flag-bearer, the human Etch-A-Sketch Mitt Romney, go down in ignoble flames after his failed attempt to shapeshift into a moderate a month before election day.
No Academy Award nominations for that performance.
Even worse for Republicans, the formerly soft-spined President Obama has leaned to flex his re-election muscles. He’s even promising gun control next. It all makes for a thrilling legislative drama. A subgenre of the political biopic I only just discovered. If I’d known the plot of Lincoln wasn’t the President’s life but the passage of the 13th Amendment, I might have stayed home. I’m lucky I didn’t.
If Congress can pass a cliff-averting fiscal bill, the whole country should feel lucky too. Then we can all stay home and watch the Academy Awards together.
I predict Lincoln wins in a landslide.