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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Movie Review (In Brief): Lincoln

Hey there Chaos fans! I know I've been away for a bit, but its because I've had a lot going on... I need a vacation! Haha! Anyways, I'll be posting this week with some pics from my emerging Khorne Bezerker force, and maybe a book review (I'm nearly done with Deliverance Lost too). However, I have a movie review for you, so without further ado:

It may or may not be a secret to longtime readers of this blog, but I am a history nut (that's what my wife calls me, at any rate). I love United States history, and I have admired Lincoln for sure. The truth is, I have been dying to see this movie, but I was also afraid. The cast sounded top notch (Lewis? Jones? Straithirn? What a cast!), and I was hoping that this movie would be smart and powerful, but I was afraid because Spielberg was the man behind the camera. At one point, Spielberg would have been a no brainer- giving us Indiana Jones trilogy, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Close Encounters, and of course, Jaws. However, he has been on a bit of a rough patch in the 21st century- I mean, he nearly ruined Indy with Crystal Skull, for heaven's sake! The war machines of War of the Worlds were fantastic, but the human element was all over the map (the audience I saw it with cheered- yes cheered- when Dakota Fanning was taken by the martians- that's how annoying she was). Minority Report was just OK, and AI was just a mess. Yes, so I had reason to fear with this- which Spielberg was going to show up?

Thankfully, there was nothing to fear here, as old Spielberg showed up and simply told a story. It is not a simple story by any stretch, but it was simply told, without schmaltz, fancy tech, or explosive action, or trickery. No, this story didn't need any of that- it just needed someone with courage to do the story justice, allowing it to develop at its own pace, and using the actors to their fullest. And thankfully, Spielberg and company did just that with "Lincoln". In fact, the movie is beautiful, elegant, meaningful, and even occasionally  humorous, while the acting is top notch all around.

The true success of the movie is its choice of scope. The movie is wise to focus in on one fight that Lincoln had to go through during the last days of the Civil War- a wider biopic would have diluted the proceedings. Just about everyone knows Lincoln as the the young "rail splitter", the Illinois lawyer, the "Great Emancipator" and as the president who put the Union back together; he is also tragically known as the first president to be assassinated. His whole life could be fodder for a movie, and I'm sure the temptation to do a sweeping biopic of his life would be there for any filmmaker. Instead of looking at Lincoln's whole life or even his actions in the four year Civil War, the movie focuses in on one particular legislative battle- the passage of the 13th Amendment, which would officially abolish slavery forever in all the United States. However bloody the Civil War was, it was this debate which would really decide the fate of the nation.

In history classes, students learn the basic cause of the Civil War is the conflict about slavery. This is both true but also misleading. The Civil War had many, many causes, with slavery as the underlying root. For some, the Civil War was a conflict between two different cultures (Industrial North versus Agrarian South), for others it was about the power of federal government as opposed to the states. For others still, it was seen as a war for "southern independence", while Northers felt the South had committed treason. Ultimately, not everyone was fighting over slavery, indeed at one point early in the conflict Lincoln had even gone so far as to say: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that." That doesn't sound like the scourge of slavery, does it?

But, time changes things. Lincoln's views had evolved over the course of the war, and by the start of the movie (the last few moths of the war) he has come to see slavery for what it truly is: a cancer, a malignant growth that is killing our country- it has split us apart, and is anathema to our values as a republic. Lincoln can't "win" the Civil War unless slavery is destroyed. Bringing the union back together without ending slavery will only delay the inevitable- slavery again infecting our country and ruining/degrading our notions of freedom. With that in mind, Lincoln wants to create the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would ban slavery officially and forever in all the states, and he wants the House of Representatives to pass it BEFORE the war is over, as Lincoln knows that once the war is over and the southern states re-admitted, it will be virtually impossible to pass the amendment.

But even here, with all Northerners in Congress and a lot of anger with the South, Lincoln still faces stiff opposition. There are many in the Congress that don't support the amendment. There's Copperhead Democrats, who oppose everything Lincoln does. There's conservative Republicans who don't want to change things too much- they just want win the war and that's all. Then there's the Radical Republicans, led by Thadeus Stevens, who feel that the 13th Amendment doesn't go far enough- they want total racial equality immediately, and they think that Lincoln's is just a half measure. There's also congressmen who are racists, and there are some too scared to make such a change, or are more worried about being re-elected than doing the right thing. Basically, getting the required 2/3 vote to Amend the Constitution should be impossible.

The movie focuses on Lincoln's efforts to get the needed votes. The movie shows Lincoln making impassioned speeches, telling stories, using his personal charm to get the congressmen to vote yes. But, when those personal moves don't fly, Lincoln resorts to rather "questionable" tactics- including dolling out patronage jobs, bribes, lying to Congress, and even something that is basically blackmail. You know- just the usual horse trading and "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" mentality that has always been present in our democratic republic. And it is thrilling to watch. Watching Lincoln (and his supporters, and his opponents, by the way) use every trick in the book is astonishing to see. The cajoling, threats, arm twisting, and near begging makes for great cinema as presented here- with so much at stake, you want Lincoln to pull it through, and every wavering Congressman matters. It is suspenseful, and it is a sign of a great movie that can make something so edge of your seat-worthy even though you already know the ending. Spielberg should get a ton of credit for letting the story develop naturally- there's no flashy editing, no rabbit pulled out of the hat tricks- he just lets the story breathe, and the tension increases as the drama winds its way toward the final voting date. You must admire the skill on display here, as so many movies might go in for the quick rush or the "Hollywood ending".

So, if the director is the first ace in the hole in this movie, choosing the right focus and allowing the events to play themselves out, the second ace is the acting. Indeed, every single actor brings their A game to this movie, and it boosts the whole proceeding from "great" to "awe-inspiring". First and foremost is Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. This performance is the closest we'll get to seeing Lincoln in motion, which is the highest praise I can give. Lewis' performance isn't caricature or impression- Lewis is doing his all to inhabit Lincoln, to make him a three dimensional human being- both a genius and a flawed human being, a fully rounded person that you feel that you know personally. Lewis makes Lincoln a hero, but not superman- he has great vision, but he makes mistakes. He is prone to depression (who wouldn't be if they were going through what Lincoln was going through). He loves to tell stories and jokes (often they have a point, but other times he's trying to cheer others or himself up). He loses his temper on more than one occasion. And Lewis gives everything he has to make it feel like Lincoln himself. If the concept of "Oscar worthy" matters to you, his performance IS of that level, and then some. He finds the perfect balance in that his Lincoln is the center of attention, but he never falls into the traps of scene-chewing or upstaging the other actors.

The whole cast is amazing. Each actor has, like Lewis, given their all to inhabit their character rather than simply act. Tommy Lee Jones gets the best laughs, but also the most complexity (besides Lincoln) as Thaddeus Stevens, a cranky Radical Republican who ironically holds the key for Lincoln's victory. Jones' portrayal allows us to see a bitter, cynical man who wants to do the right thing, but also can't help but rub people's faces in his own superiority- a brilliant politician, but also an ass. David Straitharin is William Seward, Lincoln's upright and straight laced Secretary of State who must get his hands dirty in Lincoln's stead to get the bill passed. Sally Field really makes us feel for Mary Todd Lincoln, who has great mental and personal troubles of her own, and lays them at her husband's door at the most difficult of moments. James Spader gets some great laughs as a "political operative" brought in to "change" the minds of some congressmen- his four letter word upon seeing Lincoln for the first time is a riot. Lee Pace provides the opposing views in the form of congressman Wood, a New York Democrat that vehemently fights against the Amendment. There's others, to be sure, as the whole cast is worthy, and all add to the incredible whole.

I'm going to stop here, as this is supposed to be a brief review. In summation, if you like history, you owe it to yourself to see this movie, which shines a provocative light on a great man and a great conflict. If you enjoy movies, you should see this, as it is really 1st rate film making (its great that we got Lincoln and Argo in one year). I give it 4 out of 4 Marks of Chaos.

Until next time...

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