Second Time is a Charm: Re-watching LINCOLN with Middle Schoolers
10 February 2013
Typically, I do not write this blog from a first person point of view. It is not that I foolishly claim any objectivity; I simply attempt avoiding the overt bias brought on with the first person. That said, I am going to write this week’s post from the overtly biased first person point of view.
To date, I have seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln twice. The first time I was stimulated yet unimpressed. The film was stunning, but predictable, too much like so many period piece that have come before it. After this first viewing I thought, if anything, I would like to write about the lighting design, which struck me and, I thought, established a consistent and well communicated atmosphere throughout the film. But, even the brilliant lighting did not hold my attention for long, and I decided to leave Lincoln out of Reel Club.
However, I unexpectedly saw the film a second time and I amended (pun intended) that decision. This second viewing occurred just before the holidays, when five other teachers and I took over 100 7th and 8th grade students to the local theatre. Organized entirely by our history teacher, who recently taught the American Civil War and the passing of our 13th Amendment to 8th graders, this educational field trip excited me (because, needless to say, I am a bit of a film person), but also intimidated me. Since I did not have the best experience with Lincoln during my first go-around, I was slightly daunted by the fear my students would not connect with the film, and then leave the theatre with a bad taste for movies in their mouths. After all, 12 and 13 year olds is not the target audience for Lincoln (although it is rated PG-13); I feared the film was too mature for middle schoolers’ developing tastes.
As it turned out, my fear was unfounded. And, in addition to that, viewing Lincoln in a theatre (literally) full of 12 and 13 year olds forced me to see the film through a new lens. While I did not leave there any more passionate about Lincoln then I was the first time I saw it, watching my students watch Lincoln and seeing their reactions to the film did afford me a refreshingly original cinematic experience, and helped me appreciate Spielberg and his latest work.
The opening shot of Lincoln is a brief but raw battle montage, with people fighting and dying in the mud. Immediately, the film captivated students. The trip’s excitement and their young age did create some laughter as they settled in, but, on the whole, the gasps and shrieks signaled to me most were appropriately engrossed in the film right from the beginning.
However, that initial investment was soon tested. It turns out this opening battle scene is the only “action” Spielberg’s drama packs. Though the film has other climactic moments, and many of them are equally combative, the aggression turns from psychical to verbal after this establishing shot. Unfortunately for my students, the antiquated vocabulary and discourse challenged them; at times, many of them seemed unable to follow the dialogue. Scanning the theatre, I caught whispered comments like, “What did he just say?” and “What’s he talking about?” The chattering grew louder, bodies grew restless, bathroom breaks started, and the rustling of snack packages began to score the film, but Lincoln ran on. I began to think it would be an endless 150 minutes.
Yet, there were visual breaks from the dense dialogue that enticed students back into the film. The vivid fantasy sequence of Lincoln’s dream, for example, silenced the theatre. Also, early dialogue-free scenes, such as when Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) finds his young son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), asleep in front of the fire. This, too, pulled students back in. Students watched a weathered father pick up his dreaming son and carry him off to bed. Without the dialogue students simply read the image (perhaps with some musical accompaniment to suggest a tone), and did not get hung up decoding audible language. These dialogue-free moments, which were the most emotional of the film’s build, offset the longer scenes heavily dependent on dialogue and seemed more digestible for the young audience I was with.
Nevertheless, for some time it was a push and pull experience for my middle schoolers with Lincoln. Too much dialogue and they pushed the film away; strong visuals or some slapstick comedic relief, primarily from W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) and Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and they were pulled back in. While watching them watch Lincoln I realized the delicate balance Spielberg had between visual and verbal. Language is a significant part of the film and contributes strongly to the historical moment recreated for the audience; yet, the language is challenging for young contemporary audiences and, therefore, strong visual communication is necessary. Ninety minutes in I began to think this push and pull would be the crux of my middle schoolers’ experience with Lincoln, but, as it turns out, I came to that thought a few scenes too soon.
The film’s climax is the vote on the 13th Amendment, and this was a clear turning point in my and my students’ experiences with Lincoln. Again, I was watching my students closer than I was watching the film, so this climax crept up on me as I was escorting someone out to the bathroom. All of a sudden I heard a “Nay!” from the screen and the theatre became gravely silent. Then, almost instantaneously, I saw middle school heads shaking from side to side, and, I heard my students once again whispering things like, “What does that mean?” Just then, on the screen, another “Nay!” As I made my way back to my seat a student asked me, “What does nay mean?” I responded with “It means no,” and he reacted with an eye roll. As the voting continued “ayes” were heard. At first, they didn’t know what “aye” meant either, but they were clever enough to realize that it must have meant the opposite of “nay”; therefore, “aye” meant yes.
With the first few “ayes” the loudest of our middle school student body let their own voices be heard; some cheers and claps filled the theatre with each passing vote. Conversely, when a “nay” was cast the students reacted with jeers. As the voting continued the students grew louder, and more and more chimed in. Undeniably, there were a few students out there making noise simply to make noise, but that was not the case for the majority. All of a sudden, these students were completely invested in this film. They were not looking around the theatre to see what their friends were doing, or asking us teachers to use the bathroom. They were at the edges of their seats, not blinking, focused on what was happening on the screen.
During this vote the film cuts between the House of Representatives, Lincoln (who is in the White House), Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), Ulysses S. Grant (who is still fighting in the war), and others desperately listening and counting each vote as it comes in. Even though viewers know what the outcome will be, Spielberg creates tension during the vote so that viewers, namely my students, become absorbed with this significant moment in history. This tension became clear in the theatre I was in as my students began restraining their cheers. With each vote they would either clap and holler or jeer, but then fall silent, eagerly waiting for the next vote. If any students yelled or jeered too long, their peers would “sssshhhh” them and even blurt out the occasional “Shut up.” This tension came to a head when Mary Todd Lincoln, who had tallied the votes on a piece of parchment, hastily counted up the “ayes.” In complete silence, she comes to a number and suddenly looks up in surprise. Before a word was muttered, Spielberg cuts to Lincoln standing in his White House office front of a large, open window, which is pouring light in on him.
At first, I heard muffles amid my students in the theatre; they did not understand what happened. They were waiting for someone to say, “The 13th Amendment has just been passed,” but, with this cut to Lincoln, this announcement seemed lost. Then, the film’s silence broke as Lincoln heard the sound of cheers from the House of Representatives; evidently, the 13th Amendment passed. The students erupted in applause and exclamation. I saw high-fives, fist pumps, the peace sign, and kids up on their feet. They cheered for a full two minutes, uninterrupted.
Fearing they would be unable to settle themselves again, the other teachers and I attempted to redirect their attention to the screen, but, as it happened, they did not need much guidance. They jumped right back into the film. From that moment on they maintained their focus on the film, regardless of any dialogue barrier. When they found out Thaddeus Stevens’ housekeeper was actually his wife they exploded with applause again, and when Lincoln was declared dead they fell silent, presumably in sadness. From the film’s climax to its closing credits they were entirely emotionally invested in Spielberg’s film.
I could not believe how riveted they became in Lincoln. It did not start out that way, and, from my observation, their interest built up quickly around the film’s climax. But, however and whenever it happened, almost all the students left that theatre in love with Lincoln. They next day, when given the chance to discuss and reflect on the film, students recounted countless specific details they remembered. Also, they asked so many questions about things still unclear to them, which signaled to me a continued interest in the film.
After watching students watch the film, and then reading reviews the students wrote of the film, I have come to appreciate Lincoln more. I know how hard it is to get and then hold middle schoolers’ attention, but somehow Stephen Spielberg did it. They may not have followed the film’s use of language, but they did understand the visual and, therefore, appreciated the film. Spielberg communicated the emotion and tension of that historical moment to them, and students responded openly to that communication. While I, personally, still feel Lincoln is too formulaic, I have to admit that the formula worked brilliantly on a reasonably tough audience, and that I can respect.