Lincoln: A top quality script and top quality acting

At the end of February Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor at long last. That was for his role in The Revenant, where he played the hardy frontiersman Hugh Glass, and it was an award that I questioned not because of an absence of quality in his performance, but for his relative lack of dialogue. It was all a matter of whether he had been given material of the quantity that such an honour demands.

It was an Academy Award winning role that contrasted hugely with that of the recipient in 2013, Daniel Day-Lewis. He won the accolade for a record third time for playing US president Abraham Lincoln, where there was no shortage of dialogue for him to sift through. The movie contains a multitude of monologues, many of which see Lincoln reciting worn anecdotes, something which Day-Lewis performs with a unique world-weary charisma.

The story centres around the final months of the American civil war, where recently re-elected Lincoln is trying to push through the Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution, culminating in a vote in the House of Representatives. The amendment involves the proposed abolition of slavery in the southern states, the implementation of which would effectively put an end to the conflict, and Lincoln uses his craft and that of his trusted associates to secure the votes of several soon-to-be unseated democrats.

Lincoln has a tough time convincing several members of his cabinet that seeing the amendment passed has to be done successfully by the beginning of February 1865. Day-Lewis conveys his stressed yet saintly demeanour perfectly, speaking with assertive authority when called upon and acting as an occasionally easy-going champion of the people. Throughout every scene containing the title character – and there are many – he carries an aura of shrewdness and political stealth.

It is a movie based around dialogue, whether it be Lincoln’s constant outpouring of wisdom or the powerful rhetoric of Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), or the understated remarks of Secretary of State William H Seward (David Strathairn). The power of the spoken word is the driving force, resonating with its viewers and implying that the utterance of just a select few words can help shape opinions on a national scale, and in this case make the vital contribution that puts an end to the fighting.

A massive amount of the credit for this has to go to screenwriter David Kushner, who put a lot of painstaking work into discovering the essence of what Lincoln stood for and what kind of man he was, as well as the attitudes and behaviours of the House of Representatives during the civil war.

So much has been written about Lincoln, but he must have been such a difficult man to capture with a high degree of accuracy, which makes the achievements of Kushner even more considerable. It is a script that a lot of hours would have gone into producing, with the use of as much source material he could find. The movie contains so many characters of varying philosophies and complex personalities, so Kushner us very much the man primarily responsible for creating a movie that was released to universal critical acclaim.

What impresses me most about the script as that it does not try to make the source material appear overly dramatic or exaggerated. It is far from a thriller, but it is not meant to be a thriller. I would describe it more as a theatrical documentary that uses a historical sequence of events to tell a story with eloquence and great intelligence.

As for Day-Lewis, he shows exactly why many regard him to be the greatest living actor. The manner of which he uses his material to create a lasting impression was masterful, and each of his many lines was spoken with total clarity and authenticity. For anybody who wishes to understand the benchmark that any actor should aspire to, they should watch Lincoln. The committee that decided on the 2013 Academy Award for Best Actor must have looked at Day-Lewis’ performance and thought something along the lines of, ‘This is a total non-contest’.

Trump in line for a Love Actually moment?

Anybody who pays the slightest amount of attention towards world politics will be a little concerned by the possibility of seeing Donald Trump elected as president of the United States. At present he is the clear frontrunner in the race to be the Republican candidate to stand in November’s vote, which means that he is clearly doing enough to convince the American people that he’s the right person to lead the country despite holding many divisive views.

His speeches are intended to be controversial. They are intended to be hard-hitting. They are intended to make some people look up and ask, ‘My goodness, did he really just say that?’. Just as is the case for UKIP leader Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, he is saying the things that some – mainly working class – people truly believe, to the extent that they will be compelled to vote for him.

Now, as I am not from the United States I am not privy to all the policies that Trump has proposed during his arduous campaign, but some of the more widely reported pronouncements he’s come up with are nothing short of alarming, leaving myself and many others to question whether he is a fit and proper person to lead a nation such as the United States, and even whether he is mentally unstable.

He caused a lot of consternation with comments about abortion, but the most unbelievable of his remarks were made in late 2015 when he gave a speech insisting that as president he would build a ‘great, great wall’ along the border with Mexico, and also stated that he would implement a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

Speeches normally have to be carefully prepared and to some extent diplomatic and persuasive. Instead, he used powerful and coarse language to insult a huge percentage of not just the American population, but the world population.

Some of his sympathisers would say that he was speaking in the best interests of the country in the aid of national security, given the current prominence of the so-called Islamic State group. But to totally denigrate all members of what is a fine faith which should not be treated any differently to others just because of the actions of a terrible minority.

Such comments put plenty of world issues in jeopardy, not to mention diplomacy in the future. A man who came out with such proclamations, whether in the interests of gaining power or not, would always be taken up on what he said by other world leaders, a source of prejudice for any potential negotiations and peace talks. It may even harm the health of the infamous ‘special relationship’ between the United States and the United Kingdom.

It had me speculating whether Trump’s election as president may lead to a ‘Love Actually moment’, in other words an inspiring and rousing monologue in the manner of Hugh Grant, whose fictional Prime Minister made his position clear in no uncertain terms towards president Billy Bob Thornton in the 2003 film.

The speech, written by Richard Curtis, is one of its most memorable moments, and although done for comedic effect, has had an impact on British culture. Maybe Trump could come in for similar treatment from David Cameron, albeit with the use of much different phraseology.

Here is the Love Actually speech in full:

“I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, err… Britain.

We may be a small country but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.

And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that.”

Cameron has already said something similar, responding to comments reportedly made by a member of the Russian government in September 2013 that Britain was ‘a small island that nobody listens to’. The Prime Minister made an impassioned defence of his nation, also using jovial and patriotic language.

It all just goes to show that speeches, and how they are conducted, do carry an incredible amount of weight and have done so for many, many years. Love Actually took the whole concept and turned it into a cultural phenomenon, while Trump and many of his political peers use it to appeal to the most radical, cynical thinkers in society. Persuasive arguments happen every day from the mouths of eloquent and poetic courtroom barristers, but it’s the use of language that will always continue to fascinate, regardless of a speaker’s agenda.

Influence, Censorship, and George Orwell

In this day and age, every so often we see a book or a movie; perhaps even a television series that has a profound effect on language and popular culture. It is usually a measure of its level of success and influence, but in years gone by and especially during the 20th century there were many works of fiction that found their way into the vernacular of the general public and gained varying receptions within the uppermost political circles.

I have already written about the German socialist reaction to Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, while in another previous post I covered censorship of a completely different kind with regards to the explicit Allen Ginsberg poem Howl. Meanwhile, movies carried a lot of weight among Europe’s higher echelons, a fact illustrated most aptly by the treatment towards a certain 1939 American film starring the legendary James Stewart, Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

It is a political comedy that hints at potential corruption within the US Senate, but also carries an underlying message that was at odds with the ideologies of a number of the leading European nations of the time, some of which actually went as far as to dub certain parts of the film in order for it to conform with their social beliefs. It was banned in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s USSR, and General Franco’s Spain.

Indeed, Franco seized power in the same year as Mr Smith Goes to Washington was released to the mainstream audience, following the Spanish Civil War. One man caught up in some of the proceedings over that three-year period was one of the 20th century’s most influential and outspoken authors, George Orwell, who documented his experiences in the autobiographical novel Homage to Catalonia.

Renowned for his bitter hatred of communism, Orwell was a forward thinker who never hid his opinions within the pages of his books for experts to decipher with the use of forensic examination. That is made perfectly clear in his short though powerful novel Animal Farm, where he uses domesticated livestock to personify the political landscape of the 1940s, with the evil pig Hamilton representing Stalin.

This work ruffled a few feathers, but his final novel would be the one which would confirm his legacy and leave the name George Orwell indelibly listed among the leading visionary authors of the age. Nineteen Eighty Four was set in a dystopian future where the United Kingdom was now made up of an uneven society that was subject to permanent censorship and surveillance, led by a dictatorship known as Big Brother.

Having read Nineteen Eighty Four, it is clear that Orwell is imagining a world how the world could have ended up in the not-too-distant future should the Western forces lost the war against communism and given in to its policies. While it is clearly an exaggeration that contains whimsical concepts borne out of a desire to warn democratic society of the potential harm that might have lay ahead of it, sometimes I treated it as political satire when elements of the story actually detailed events that Orwell thought plausible.

Big Brother is the first and most obvious term which has found its way into the modern language. The name of a reality television programme broadcast in many different countries, it connotes total surveillance through eyes, cameras and other sensory equipment. The wide eyes of Orwell’s moustachioed Inner Party mascot reinforce that none of the characters in Nineteen Eighty Four have any privacy or freedom of speech whatsoever.

This is where my citation of Mr Smith Goes to Washington becomes relevant. As the central character in Nineteen Eighty Four, Winston Smith, and his lover Julia wage a secret war against Big Brother and the Inner Party, their views are ruthlessly exposed by a sophisticated surveillance mechanism and it leads to them being tortured by the Inner Party hierarchy and forcibly made to change their views towards Big Brother through twisted and manipulative techniques.

The total eradication of an alternative political view is what those four world leaders did to Mr Smith Goes to Washington. A differing ideology was not allowed to exist, meaning that the message from the top was the only message that could either be believed or followed. This is the leading theme in Nineteen Eighty Four, only that presence of any opposing views – whether aired or not – would lead to a visit to the torture chamber, otherwise known as Room 101.

This is another idea from the novel to have given its name to a television programme, which makes light of the concept of there being a room containing all the horrors imaginable. The fate that awaits any of Big Brother’s silent detractors (Thought criminals) is hinted at throughout the novel, as many of Winston’s ‘comrades’ in the Outer Party disappear mysteriously over time.

There are many other words and phrases from Nineteen Eighty Four to have succumbed to common use. For example, Newspeak is now a language in its own right, the same way that Klingon is for fans of Star Trek. It is a fascinating language at that, given that it gradually removes words in order to find a more simplistic alternative, while abbreviations and acronyms are commonplace.

While the awful and unforgiving world that Orwell created did not come to fruition, some of the concepts he portrayed do resonate with many who feel that he hit the right notes in a few areas, particularly with the whole idea of censorship and universal surveillance. In the UK, security services such as GCHQ have alienated some members of the public by monitoring telephone conversations and social media accounts, and this is regularly cited as a manifestation of what Orwell described.

There is so much that can be written about Nineteen Eighty Four that fits within the purpose of this blog, but its level of influence and the way it continues even now to shape opinions is the most remarkable of all its talking points. Orwell used imagination and the political environment of the time to create a version of reality which has since been named after him, a rare accolade shared by only the best of British literary figures such as Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.

Howzat for an Analogy?!

On Tuesday I went to the splendid and richly historic city of Oxford, a place with far too much to see and experience in just the one day. I saw many things that fascinated and intrigued me, along with a couple of artefacts that totally blew my mind.

This was never more pronounced than during my brief browsing of the Weston Library, anattraction that was received widespread attention from tourists and visitors since it was opened in its current state back in March 2015. Unfortunately it was moving towards closing time when I ventured inside, partly to escape from the pouring rain.

Shelves and shelves of books and other media were on display beyond a first floor balcony when I first walked inside on to a wide and pristine foyer, while there was a shop and small cafe to the left. On the right was a collection of items exhibited to mark the centenary of the birth of former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, which included personal notes and photographs, as well as numerous letters he sent during his time in office.

Seeing these items was special enough, but the real treasure hoard was through a nearby door, where a heavily bearded member of staff was leading a group of people around a room sprinkled with display cabinets, all containing items written or produced by the hands of world-famous individuals.

Among them were the musings of 19th century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, poet John Milton, and renowned scientist Dorothy Hodgkin – whose crystallography skills were integral to the development of penicillin. It was spellbinding for me, and presumably it was the same for everyone of all those many nationalities within that lamplit showroom.

But the subject of this post centres around a transcript that was pinned to the wall just to the right of Benjamin Disraeli’s letter. Continuing with the political theme, it happened to be the speech given by Geoffrey Howe as he resigned from the UK cabinet in November 1990, an event which is viewed by many as the trigger for Margaret Thatcher to resign as Prime Minister shortly after.

For me, speeches are not an area covered in enough depth from an academic point of view. When I was at school there were times that we sat a mock exam and one of our optional questions would be based around writing a speech. I tried such a question once with mixed results – using the required amount of persuasive language, but elsewhere it was a little lacking in substance because of my limited background knowledge.

Everybody enters a speech with a different approach. For a perfect speech a number of things need getting right including content, balance and validity of argument, and most importantly the delivery. The person making the speech must be engaging, and this particularly applies in places such as the House of Commons as MPs vie to get their voices heard and views sympathised with. And that is where Howe got everything spot on.

He began with a lengthy cricket analogy, part of which went something like this

It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

Now, it has been acknowledged that Howe himself didn’t write this line, or indeed any part of this metaphor, but it was the way he delivered it that brought about the end of Thatcher’s 11-year reign. The person who wrote it was in fact his wife.