Something Old, Something New is a weekly feature that creates a double feature with a film released in the last few years and an older movie. These films contain aesthetic, narrative and/or thematic parallels that can erase decades of separation and show how ideas and styles echo across cinema history.
The Last Temptation of Christ and Lincoln deconstruct, then reassemble accepted iconography through revisionism. Martin Scorsese’s passion project, an arduous and long-delayed labor of love that finally hit theaters a decade after the director optioned Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, approaches Jesus as a man, filled with mortal desires and doubts. Similarly, Steven Spielberg uses Lincoln to undermine the godlike stature of a man whose gigantic, immortalizing marble statue could fit comfortably in the Parthenon. That both figures emerge from their respective films as iconic as ever does not make the journeys to those points any less subversive, nor are the seemingly undisturbed conclusions about both men not tainted by the darker paths used to reach them.
The revision of both stories begins in their casting. Neither Willem Dafoe’s Jesus nor Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln conform to the typical views held of these people. Dafoe, with his expressive, knotty face, has an intensity in him that makes his gentle delivery of God’s word more pressing than the ever-calm, ever-loving Sunday School vision of the Lord. One look at his weathered, sun-hardened face stirs the imagination for how toughened his hands must be: here is the first Jesus who could conceivably be a carpenter. Day-Lewis approaches Lincoln from the opposite direction: instead of the low, stentorian voice attributed to the great orator, Day-Lewis speaks in a high whine, shades of his Kentucky origins revealing themselves in a slight twang. Already, the images are eroding: the Son of God walked on Earth a man as battered by the harshness of life in his time as those he sought to convert, while the Savior of the Union came from what would turn into a Confederate state in response to his election.
To undermine these men further, Spielberg and Scorsese place them in situations that seem utterly opposed to what one thinks of Lincoln or Christ. Contrary to the “Honest Abe” vision perpetuated in elementary schools and beyond, this Lincoln gets his hands dirty with the sort of seedy elements so reviled in today’s politics. To get the votes necessary to ratify the 13th Amendment, he relies on a cabal of underhanded types (led by James Spader, whose Dionysian frame and dress suggest a man who dwells outside the usual realms of decorum) to sway outgoing but still-recalcitrant Democrats with cushy positions in a fresh Lincoln term. As Spader and his minions stir up votes from the opposition, the president must win over his own party, the greatest threat to the amendment’s passage being the stubbornness of Republicans who believe he does not go far enough. A betrayal led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) could set the cause back more than Democratic resistance.
Jesus, of course, needs a betrayal to occur to accomplish his own goal. He knows of his preordained destiny, and how he must arrive at his early, horrific demise. For that reason, his closest confidant, Judas (Harvey Keitel), may be the film’s true tragic hero just as Stevens is in Lincoln. They are caricatures of history and art: Stevens being recast as the radical congressman responsible for mentoring and unleashing the vindictive mulatto in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Judas immortalized as the ultimate traitor in the religion born of his master’s death. His most famous artistic representation, in Dante’s Inferno, positions him as the most damnable mortal in Hell, surpassed only by Lucifer himself.
Yet both men are, in essence, more noble than those who eclipse them. Where Lincoln proves himself a man of incessant compromise and political expediency, Stevens takes a stand for what is self-evidently (especially today), the right view: that blacks are not equal merely as a legal standard but as a moral and intellectual member of the same biological species as whites. Lincoln’s most tragic moment involves not the doomed president but this congressman, who must devastatingly betray his own beliefs for the sake of a momentous but fundamentally incremental change, helping set back the true upheavals by nearly a century. Likewise, Judas makes a far greater sacrifice than Jesus by driving his teacher to commit to his sacrifice as Jesus imagines leaving his agony behind in a beautiful sequence. Judas will die with Jesus to save the world; the difference is that he will be damned for it.
Behind the camera, the two films show off a surprising level of austerity from their respective makers. The drained color of Spielberg’s film should be expected of yet another collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, but it is the patient, respectful pace and distance of the shots that seems so unlike the director. Yes, “Spielberg faces” abound, and there are a few swooping, fast-but-smooth movements reticent of the director’s other work, but for the most part, the director makes the camera a part of the stately, oak-carved surroundings of the halls of power, playing to but deepening biopic style to peer around Lincoln’s weary face to see how modern everything was in its messiness. By contrast, Scorsese does not play to his movie’s generic conventions but against them: this is not a rousing, Hollywood-crafted, Biblical epic with blaring horns and ostentatious ‘Scope compositions. Rather, Michael Ballhaus’ muted cinematography and the score of world music curated by Peter Gabriel lend an element of verisimilitude to the proceedings, a reminder that this all occurred in a barren, inhospitable area of land and not in the picture-pages of children’s books placed in some hair salons and pediatricians’ offices.
Finally, the two movies are bonded by a subtle but overwhelming cynicism that is perhaps most pronounced in their seemingly euphoric conclusions. Lincoln, of course, presides over the passage of the 13th Amendment and the official freedom of slaves, while Jesus recommits to his fate after an extended reverie of doubt and allows himself to die for mankind’s sins. Lincoln‘s coda of the president’s Second Inaugural Address morosely suggests that the immortality contained in those words and his singular delivery of them will obscure, not clarify. Worse still, it will erode the contributions of many others, making Thaddeus Stevens (and the numerous black activists the film does not even portray) footnotes to be discovered by only the most diligent as a watered-down, beatified image of a flawed man lives on forever in classes and the cornerstone of capitalist society: money. As for Scorsese’s Jesus, not only is he presented as the first victim of Catholic guilt, he also makes viscerally real the agony of one element of the Gospel not revised but instead presented with frank honesty. No other work of art so starkly reminds viewers that when Jesus called out for help, Satan answered, but his Father did not.