Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: Lincoln (2012)... and Movie 43 (2013)

If you were expecting a review of the just-released Movie 43 here, well, screw that. I caught the last three sketches as I was walking out of the other movie I saw on Sunday; figured that, since it was an anthology film, I could walk in near the end and not miss anything, right? Well, I wouldn't have missed anything if I'd just left the theater there and then. The "jokes" were practically laugh-free and had me groaning more than anything, with only one serious laugh coming from me in those twenty minutes. How so many talented actors found their way into this godawful mess is beyond me. I'd give it an easy 1 out of 5, but I only saw a small fraction of the movie, and for all I know the other sketches could be comic gold on par with Monty Python's best work. This is definitely getting a dishonorable mention on my inevitable "worst of 2013" list, that's for damn sure.

Movie 43 would've ruined my night if not for the other movie I saw, the one I paid to see...

Lincoln (2012)

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Lincoln is another Steven Spielberg masterpiece. Focusing on Abraham Lincoln as a human being rather than the marble-statue caricature that he has evolved into, this film is a tense political drama anchored by some magnificent performances. Rather than try to encompass the full span of Lincoln's life or even his Presidency, this film zooms in on a single event, the attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery as the long, bloody Civil War was winding down to its long-awaited finish. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington this film ain't. Rather, it focuses on all the backroom wheeling and dealing that took place to get the amendment passed -- the patronage, the spin, the half-truths, the concern over legality, and all the other shady stuff that you wouldn't expect to see in a biopic of "Honest Abe" -- and, perhaps controversially, presents it as the real reason why this country has been able to make any progress. Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner have made politics into Ocean's Eleven, and the result is truly a magnificent film to behold.

At the center of it all is Daniel Day-Lewis as the President. I am convinced that, while Day-Lewis is an actor, he does not so much as act as he does literally become whoever it is he is portraying. His famous method acting is once more on display here, playing a Lincoln who has been visibly weathered by four years in office and the bloodiest war the nation has yet faced. He captures a man who agonizes over a choice -- push for the Thirteenth Amendment in Congress, or make peace with the South now? His interactions with his family and his closest advisers carry both authority (the "immense power" scene is up there with "I drink your milkshake!") and weariness. His performance has "Oscar" written all over it. The supporting cast is a who's who of names big and small; Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones have the largest roles as, respectively, Abe's wife Mary Todd and the radical abolitionist Republican Thaddeus Stevens, but all the characters, even the "hey-it's-that-guy-blink-and-you'll-miss-him" roles, are carried by strong actors well-suited to the parts they play.

The writing is where the film truly shines. Based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the film humanizes Lincoln and portrays him as a man of his time, one who wants to end slavery but realizes that it will not only be a tough fight in Congress, but that if he makes abolition the Union's mission rather than just preserving the nation, he will ensure that the Confederacy will fight to the bitter end, costing untold thousands more lives on top of the 600,000 already dead. Not only was America divided between the blue and the grey, but within the states loyal to the Union, abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens clashed with industrialists and merchants like Fernando Wood who made money turning Southern cotton into clothing, as well as blue-collar workers who feared that a flood of black laborers moving north would depress wages. Support for abolition was far from unanimous, and Lincoln needed to carefully assemble a coalition to get the Amendment through Congress -- even if it required some less-than-honorable means to do so. Patronage was common at the time, so palms were greased among wavering moderates and lame ducks finishing their final term through the promise of government jobs. Stevens was forced to play down his belief in racial equality in order to convince the more racist members of Congress that freeing the slaves wouldn't lead to a white supremacist's nightmare of a "mongrelized" America. All that is to say nothing of the fact that Lincoln's wife Mary Todd was afraid that he was overworked as a result of the war and the Amendment. All in all, 1865 in Washington was an epic time to be in.

And oh, is this film epic. Scenes like a simple roll call in the House of Representatives had me on the edge of my seat, with me counting down the number of votes left to get the Amendment passed. Action scenes are sparse in number, with the film being very "talky", but Spielberg makes even the slowest scenes as engaging as anything he came up with in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He shows once again how damn good he is at making these kinds of grand blockbusters, be they popcorn action movies or sober historical dramas. He focuses the camera's eye squarely on the characters, probably figuring that, if you need jerky camera movements and quick cuts to keep the viewer engaged, then you're doing something wrong. The entire film feels very "classic '70s Hollywood", pacing itself rather than just rushing through the history like a set of bullet points.

What surprised me most about Lincoln, however, was its radicalism. Given that it was made by the normally agreeable Steven Spielberg and is about a man revered today as the shining example of an honest, straight-talking politician, right down to the nickname of "Honest Abe", I wasn't expecting such a subversive take on the subject. Rather than having Lincoln win the war and free the slaves through the strength of his moral character, he and his allies play the political games of patronage and doublespeak that so many have bemoaned as antithetical to a democratic system. The film makes the case that the sort of politics that many of us now would see as sleazy were, in fact, a critical part of the development of our nation's moral character. Without those who elected to "get things done" and worry about the consequences later, would we have come as far as we have? Would an end to the involuntary bondage of millions of people, solely on the basis of the color of their skin, have had to wait for another day, or another decade?

Score: 5 out of 5

A thrilling drama about the fight for the freedom of all Americans. Anyone with even a passing interest in history, especially the American Civil War, owes it to themselves to see this. I waited until now, two months after this film came out, to finally see it. Don't make the same mistake I did.

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