Review: Lincoln

Lincoln and his cabinet.

Lincoln and his cabinet.

In a scene in the middle of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican congressman, chides Abraham Lincoln for waiting so long to make an attempt to end slavery.

Lincoln responds that if he had tried to end slavery after the war began in 1861, the border states would have joined the Confederacy, leading to the Union’s defeat and making the chances of emancipation even more remote. Stevens sits there with a defensive expression on his face, unable to offer a rebuttal.

Abraham Lincoln’s character – his blend of compassion and pragmatism – is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as its title makes clear. Most Civil War epics focus on the great battles between the Union and Confederate armies, but Lincoln concentrates on the role the 16th president played in the great legislative battle over the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

Those who pay $9 to see artillery fire and bayonet charges will be disappointed by the film. The few battle scenes are short and brutal, serving only to remind viewers of one of the many pressures weighing on Lincoln’s mind as he decided the best way to end the war.

The ongoing carnage has led the Democrats and the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose passage of the 13th amendment out of the fear it will ruin peace negotiations. They pester Lincoln for even bringing up emancipation, while the Radical Republicans pester him for not pressing emancipation hard enough.

In his portrayal of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a man aware that his role in history is to herd his hard-headed colleagues toward emancipation and peace. He does this mostly through slippery legislative techniques we would associate more with LBJ: patronage, cajoling, and even a little bit of dishonesty. Moralizing is used only as a last resort.

Two of Lincoln’s great speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, make it into the film, but they seem only rhetorical flourishes for Lincoln’s legislative masterwork. Unseemly political tactics are an essential part of Republican government, in any year; during the Civil War our country was lucky to have a brilliant president who used them to achieve great things.

I could think of no historical character more deserving of a portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, with his well-known thoroughness, than the complicated, monumental Lincoln. Ironically, the British actor brings America’s most revered historical figure to life. Instead of the booming voice most Lincoln impersonators use, he employs a more realistic reedy twang. He demonstrates Lincoln’s penchant for funny anecdotes well enough to get my theater laughing a couple times. With saggy eyelids, a slight hunch and a sad smile, he communicates the weariness and the spiritual burdens Lincoln acquired after four years of a wartime presidency.

He also gives him flaws. In scenes of discord with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son, Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he shows Lincoln as a man prone to indecision and anger, like the rest of us. Underneath it all, though, is the wisdom and strength of character that made Lincoln such an icon.

A great cast joins Day-Lewis in creating real people out of the historical figures known only through stodgy old photographs and dry academic writing. Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln as a woman so anxious, in large part due to the death of her son Tad shortly before the beginning of the film, that I both felt sorry for her and wanted to avoid her. Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln is a frustrated young man imprisoned at Harvard by his mother’s worries while he would rather be proving himself on the battlefield.

Thanks to the full-fledged performances and the attention to detail in the sets, costumes, accents and 19th-century lingo, the movie creates such a convincing image of 1865 that it felt like a precious window into the past. The United States of 1865 is a character itself, tired of war and uncomfortable with the great changes it is undergoing. The new capitol building is so blindingly white that it seems both inspiring and awkward amongst the dingy buildings and muddy streets of Washington, D.C. The telegraphs that bring news of the results of battles and their casualties seem to strike the characters as exciting and frightening, and the same could be said of the freed blacks who have just begun serving in the army.

At the end of the movie, when I stepped out of the theater into the parking lot, I felt like I had returned from a trip to the past. I was conscious of the fact that I and my surroundings were products of the historical currents portrayed in the movie. Some characters in the movie, including Lincoln, ask what America should be like after the war ends, how it can heal the scars of slavery. Stepping back into modern-day America, I had an opportunity to examine the way the United States chose to proceed from their eyes.

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The Dark Knight Rises, In IMAX

Yesterday Kish and I went to see The Dark Knight Rises, in IMAX, at the Easton AMC Cinemas.

First, about IMAX:  I frankly don’t think it’s worth the extra money for standard Hollywood fare.  Before yesterday, the only IMAX movies I’d seen were nature-type movies about hiking on mountains or rafting through the Grand Canyon — movies where the spectacular scenery, on the huge screens, made for an overwhelmingly memorable experience.  Action-movie footage of Gotham City, car chases, and hand-to-hand combat just don’t have the same impact, no matter how loud the explosions might be.  IMAX gives you a bigger screen in a bigger theater, but I wasn’t able to appreciate any other material differences from your normal movie experience.

As for The Dark Knight Rises, the film is very, very long.  It has the standard elements of a seemingly indestructible, unbeatable villain and a plot that places Gotham City in mortal peril yet again, thereby allowing Batman and his comrades to show their superhero stuff.  Batman suffers mightily, as he always does, and speaks with that annoying growl when he wears his suit, and gets to use some new high-tech gadgets in the Battle Against Bane.

It’s a perfectly acceptable end to the Dark Knight trilogy, as characters and scenes from the prior two Dark Knight films make appearances.  Christian Bale has the Batman and Bruce Wayne characters down cold, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman play their enjoyable supporting roles well, and Gary Oldman is steady and unflappable as Commissioner Gordon.  My favorite characters were Anne Hathaway, as an untrustworthy cat burglar thief turned ally, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a cop trying to deal with the carnage.  It’s rare that you appreciate acting — as opposed to action — in a film like this, but Hathaway’s performance broke through the explosions and fistfights.  And I think Gordon-Levitt makes a very convincing, and believable, action movie hero.

All of that said, I found it impossible to watch the movie without thinking of the subtext now put on the film by the Aurora, Colorado shootings.  The Dark Knight Rises is a dark, violent movie where innocent people going about their business get shot and killed by masked bad guys.  How can you watch Bane’s crew kill people at the Gotham Stock Exchange, for example, without thinking of the people at the midnight show when James Holmes burst in and began firing?  For me and probably for many people, the grisly backdrop of the shootings make it impossible to enjoy the movie as it was intended — as escapist, superhero fare.

50/50

If you’ve lost a family member or close friend to cancer, as most Americans have, you’re probably not eager to watch a movie about someone struggling with the dread disease — even if it is billed as a comedy of sorts.  Kish and I decided to take the chance, however, and went to see 50/50.

We’ve enjoyed the prior work of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, the two principal stars, and they were as good as we expected.  Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a risk-averse neat freak who learns he has cancer, parts ways with his overwhelmed, self-absorbed girlfriend, goes through chemotherapy, and struggles with the 50-50 possibility that he might not survive.  Rogen is Kyle, a crass, stoner friend who provides crucial moral support — and, Adam learns, is approaching his friend’s disease with care and thoughtfulness.  Their interaction is hilarious and touching.  Along the way Adam learns important lessons about himself, the men in his chemotherapy group, and his domineering, yet deeply caring, mother.  The relationship that develops between Adam and his emotional counselor seemed like a plot contrivance to me, but it didn’t detract from what was otherwise an enjoyable, emotionally satisfying film.

It’s hard to imagine a movie about a young person dealing with cancer and potential death could be funny and positive, but 50/50 pulls it off.

Insidious Inception

At Richard’s urging, we went to see Inception on Sunday.  Whew!  What a terrific movie!  It insidiously works its way into your consciousness, and during idle moments you find yourself thinking about certain scenes or basic questions raised by the serpentine plot.

The movie is just about perfect summer movie fare because it has something to appeal to just about everyone.  Those who like human drama will be hooked by the emotional backstory of Cobb, the anguished central character played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Those who like devious plotting will appreciate the multiple layers and numerous twists and turns of the story line.  Sci-fi freaks will enjoy the concept of people invading the dreams of others to extract information — or possibly implant it.  Action movie fans will revel in the shooting, kung fu, hallway fu, and snow fu scenes.   Special effects geeks will like the crumbling cities of the mind, the fighting in a tumbling hallway, and the patient, weightless collection of sleepers, among many other visually stunning scenes.

Leonardo DiCaprio was great — is there any actor in Hollywood right now who plays deeply troubled characters better than DiCaprio? — but the performance that was a real revelation to me was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, DiCaprio’s key partner in dream invasion.  At once sharp, imperturbable, humorous, reliable, wise, and a total action stud, Arthur was a tougher character to play than Cobb, and Gordon-Levitt pulled it off beautifully.  He was totally believable as a sharp-dressing intellectual who could devise complicated yet successful extraction schemes and then more than hold his own against subconscious manifestations in battles to the death in zero gravity.

I totally agree with Richard’s take that Inception is a must-see-on-the-big-screen movie.