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
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
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
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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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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 .”