Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lincoln Trades Vampires For History

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a mainstream media in possession of a foul reputation, must be in want of a narrative; this truth applies equally to film critics and political commentators.  In the case of Steven Spielberg’s latest drama, Lincoln, the narrative emphasized the voice of Daniel Day-Lewis; other factors contributed to the critics’ reactions, but it was the voice primarily that drove their 4-star reviews.  Since these dumber-than-dirt movie analysts always presume audiences will share their same interests, this subject of a 200-year-old man’s speech volume hogged most of the reviews I read prior to watching the movie, so I really had little idea of what to expect from Lincoln, other than statist propaganda (Spielberg pulled a Joe Biden and called Republicans pro-slavers prior to the release of the film).  Strong acting, a decent script, and detailed artistic design all left me pleasantly surprised by the credits-roll; while Lincoln doesn’t stand beside other historical dramas, such as Rabbit Proof Fence or Spielberg’s own Empire of the Sun, it’s an intriguing examination of the American democratic process, the debate over slavery, and the efforts of one man to abolish what he viewed as a monstrosity against nature.

The movie focuses solely on the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and the central conflict of the story takes place not on a battlefield but in Congress.  By 1865, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has already earned a polarizing status: some view him as a hero fighting for liberty and human rights, while others view him as a tyrant who has overstepped his Constitutional limits in order to ruin the South’s economy and deprive slave owners of their “property”.  Now Lincoln resolves to infuriate the latter group even further by backing a 13th amendment to the Constitution that would abolish the institution of slavery once and for all time.  Most Republicans in the House back the proposition, but they don’t have the 2/3 majority necessary to overrule the voice of the Democrats, who are obstinate in their opposition to abolition and negro enfranchisement.  Abe’s struggle to unite his party, round up enough Democrat stragglers to approve the amendment, and so legislatively end the Civil War is central to the film.  For its very long running time of 152 minutes, Lincoln addresses a very short segment of the 16th president’s command, yet it explores its subject with a lot of depth and analysis.  This method of storytelling will likely irk some viewers, who will deem the movie slow and boring, but I would immensely prefer it over another drama that rushes through the whole Civil War within the same timeframe.  My mother will testify that I’m a slow reader who’s indisposed to skimming; apparently that same principle carries over into my movie-going appetites.  Besides the Congressional fight over slavery, the film also touches on the relationship between Lincoln and his son, Robert, played by that Inception guy Joseph Gordon-Levitt who’s seemingly acted in a movie every other week since Dark Knight earlier this summer.  Having seen the spiritual and literal (amputations were a common treatment for the war’s wounded; the severed limbs were thrown in mounds not far from the road) trials that war veterans endure, Robert yearns to join the Union Army and serve his country, but his parents would have him become a lawyer instead.  Robert appears in only a couple scenes, and though the audience doesn’t get to know him that intimately, I felt sympathy for him and his father alike.

As other reviewers have noted, Lincoln's cast is excellent.  Daniel Day-Lewis captures Lincoln’s authority and confidence impeccably, and the frustration he bears against his fellows is palpable.  Sally Field is fine as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, although her character is rather minor in the grand picture.  Tommy Lee Jones assumes the role of Thaddeus Stevens, who represents the radical right of the Republican party that supports not only emancipation but also full voting rights for negroes and punitive actions against former slave-owners to achieve “social justice”.  Stevens is perceived as an extremist by most in the government, and even Lincoln doubts the expediency of his views.  At one point in the movie, a Democrat asks the representative if he takes the statement “All men are created equal” literally.  Stevens gestures to the man and answers, “How can I say that all men are created equal when some are naturally endowed by their creator with dim wits?”  Jones credibly conveys Steven's passion and sarcasm, but his performance largely owes to a strong script.

The movie’s dialogue is much more sophisticated than that of the average Hollywood creation, and sometimes borders on Shakespearean.   “He is more reptile than man!” is one example of the witty mud-slinging in Lincoln’s Congress, the sort of invective that’s sadly forbidden in today’s real-world, politically “correct” environment, wherein it’s scandalous to even call your opponent a “food stamp president”.  With that said, the script does make several desperate attempts to sound "cool" to high school/college viewers, mainly through the gratuitous insertion of 21st century profanity.  The audience of my theater got a good laugh when a character exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be effed.”  Likewise, everybody chuckled when Lincoln told his associates, “Nothing makes the English poo faster than a portrait of George Washington.”  Both these situations, not to mention the numerous gahdamns that taint Lincoln’s speech and others’, felt forced to me, although they’ll doubtless become running jokes between homeschool debaters.  The underlying assumption of the film also seemed illogical to me. We’re supposed to believe the ratification of the 13th amendment would effectively end slavery and the Civil War, but the Confederates were essentially rebels who had cast off all the laws of the federal government.  Why would the same parties that ignored Lincoln’s previous Emancipation Declaration pay any heed to the government’s 2nd call for abolition?  Repetition does not guarantee reform, especially since the southern Democrats viewed such calls for change as an assault on their property rights and way of life.  Overall, though, Lincoln is a well-written drama filled to the brim with emotionally-charged discourse, moving speeches, and reflection on the American political system.

Lincoln is just as impressive on a visual scale.  Costume, set, and art design all merge to create an authentic portal into the mid-19th century.  The cinematography refrains from the negative influences of shaky- and multiple-camera.  Instead, the camera allows the actors to dominate their scenes, by lingering on them for long periods as they deliver their lines without breaks.  In the same way, music is noticeably absent during scenes of heavy dialogue, which forces all the audience’s attention onto the actors.  The approach pays off well and underlines the power of the movie’s performances.

Lincoln is neither the best Spielberg movie nor the best historical movie I’ve seen, but it is well-made and educational to a certain extent.  My fellow debaters would probably get their $10’s worth from the theater, but everybody else might as well wait for the home video release, as it’s not a big-screen movie.   It’s a darn shame that Spielberg deliberately released Lincoln after the election, as the Democrats are the clear villains of the movie, but what would you expect from an out-of-touch billionaire?  Riddle me this: what do you call it when a Hollywood superstar with a 9-digit salary indicts a political candidate for being too rich?

Grade Review: B+ (where A is Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, or Indiana Jones 1 & 3)

Trailer Reviews (compilation of ads from The Dark Knight Rises, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Lincoln.  Some of these have already entered and departed theaters.) -

Alex Cross – stupid action garbage about a guy who likes torturing people to death and the Tyler Perry who must hunt him down.
Chasing Mavericks – King Leonidas trades his spear for a surfboard.  Like all sports movies, it's based on a true story.  “Radical...”
Frankenweenie – B&W stop-motion film by Tim Burton about a boy who reanimates his dead dog.  Judging by the trailer, the movie is short on plot, but it looks creative nonetheless.
Gangster Squad – Sean Penn stars in a movie about shooting and killing people.  Oh, and there's sex.
Iron Man 3 – Ben Kingsley considers himself a “teacherer”.  Lots of explosions and Transformers-style destruction.
Jack Reacher – More pointless sex and violence, this time with Tom Cruise.
Killing Them Softly – Another movie where the heroes are murderous thugs, this time with Brad Pitt.  Also flaunts an anti-America message.
Les Miserables – Little sneak preview played at Indy in which the producers boasted that they got Hollywood actors instead of real singers to perform the numbers in their musical.  Good for them (*heavy sarcasm*).
Looper – A science-fiction thriller about assassins called loopers who eliminate people from the future through time-travel.  Eventually these loopers are assigned to kill their future selves; we see this happen to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who finds himself face-to-face with his 70-some version, Bruce Willis.  This appears to be the Inception of 2012, with an intriguing, original premise and awesome special effects.
Paranormal Activity 4 – I don't think my friends and I will be making a spoof trailer based on this one.
Red Dawn – It's a remake of an anti-commie cult classic I never saw about teenagers who repel a Soviet invasion of the United States.  This time the North Koreans are the baddies, confronting a headstrong opposition led by Thor and Peeta.  The acting looks bad, but the film promises fun in its junky, cheesy, explosiony way.
The Lone Ranger – This film adaptation of an old TV show looks visually impressive like Gore Verbinski's other movies (Pirates of the Carribbean trilogy, Rango) and claims the acting of Johnny Depp, but the trailer doesn't reveal much in the way of story.  Then again, neither did the awful Rango trailer.


  1. ok. so I totally HATE (yes, all caps) trailers in theaters. but I totally don't mind reading your your descriptions of them. :-P

  2. Hmmm.
    Don't judge books by their covers, and don't judge movies by their trailers. ;)
    I like your review of Lincoln, though. I'm yet to see it but I've heard it's incredible.


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