Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Great Emancipator

Taking place in the months after the Gettysburg address, Steven Spielberg's latest film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and based on the Dorris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals, tells the fascinating story of the passage of the 13th Amendment, the amendment that would abolish slavery. There aren't many great historical political dramas in the history of film. The Battle of Algiers and All the President's Men are, I suppose, the two classics, but if we break the genre into historical political films about the passage of a law, those are certainly rare. Lincoln is not only a great historical political drama, it's a near masterpiece and one of Spielberg's best accomplishments. Period. I just saw a free advanced screening, so for once, I'll say a few things about it before most others have seen it--I might even have seen it before most film critics. Cool.

First,  Day-Lewis will win the Academy Award. I can almost guarantee it--or, I would be shocked if he didn't. I can't imagine a better performance. It's a remarkably subtle characterization, especially considering his ridiculously over-the-top, overly theatrical performances in both Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood--both of which were a bit too much for me. In Lincoln, he plays a soft-spoken, pensive, psychologically complex, almost frail and seemingly vulnerable Lincoln. A kind but tormented president, Lincoln is troubled with the blood spilled and great sacrifices given daily on the battlefields of the Civil War, troubled by the fact that he recently lost his young son, troubled that he, as president, cannot grieve for him, and troubled that his eldest son wants more than anything to join the Union cause and fight. Lincoln is witty, warm, forgiving, and angry when he needs to be. He is a great listener, a man famous for placing former rivals in his cabinet, and a great storyteller. He always knows just the right story to tell in just the right moment. In one scene, his secretary of war storms off during a particularly tense moment, yelling that he can't take another God-damn story. But everyone else seems eager to listen.

And all of this praise is coming from someone who doesn't think very highly of Spielberg. In fact, Spielberg is one of the most overrated directors. His films are fun, popcorn fair, made for a mostly mindless mass audience. He almost always overdoes the musical score and cranks up the sentimentality with close-ups and lighting. I like Jaws well enough, and I'll always be a bit nostalgic for the Indiana Jones films, and first two Jurassic Park films were pretty fun, but I think Schindler's List is overrated. Rarely do we see Spielberg grappling with interesting ideas. He's usually only concerned with plot and character. This is why Lincoln surprised me. It was deliberate and stately, almost European in its pacing. There were a couple of cheesy Spielberg moments--one occurs right at the beginning where several soldiers start quoting the Gettysburg Address and the John Williams score plays in the background to make sure we know this is the moment we are supposed to be moved to tears. But mostly he tones down the sentimental music--at least compared to his other films. The fact that he has directed a moving and gripping drama about the passage of an amendment is saying something.

I wasn't a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones. He just sounds too much like Tommy Lee Jones and didn't disappear into his role. I couldn't get the person out of my head, whereas with Day-Lewis and Sally Field I could. But this is a fairly minor quibble.

What struck me from nearly the first moment was the relevance of the story. It was very difficult to get people from Lincoln's own party to support the amendment--and vastly more difficult to get the overtly racist Democrats to sign on. I couldn't help think about how difficult it was for President Obama to get the healthcare law passed. It's true that there wasn't bipartisan support, but there wasn't bipartisan support for the abolition of slavery either. The handful of Democrats who voted in its favor only did so because they were lame ducks and were promised lucrative political positions afterword. And it was a much more moderate amendment than the radical Republican wing wanted. Stevens and others wanted not just to free slaves but to give blacks the right to vote.

It was a monumental task, and Lincoln had to lie and cheat a little to get it done. Maybe honesty is a bit overrated.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Poetry of Woody Allen

I watched Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome with Love, a few weeks ago, and I was nothing but disappointed. Alec Baldwin should make any film watchable, but his role was so strange it bothered me throughout. He was both a character in the story and some sort of omnipresent life force who would appear out of nowhere to give one of the other characters advice about love and life. I guess Allen was attempting to resuscitate the Bogart character in Play It Again Sam (1972)--in both films only the male character can see the Baldwin/Bogart character; he's invisible to the women. On the whole, I've been pleased with most of Allen's recent films: Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) were masterpieces and Midnight in Paris (2011) was great--maybe not a masterpiece but very good. On second thought, despite my mad love for Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Whatever Works (2009) was pretty terrible and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) no better. Allen's problem is that he is so prolific that he doesn't seem to want to slow down to refine his work. It's either hit or miss for him.

After watching Rome, I decided to revisit some classic Allen films, including Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Husbands and Wives (1992). I guess I was second-guessing how highly esteemed Allen is. I mean, how is it possible that the same person who wrote and directed Celebrity (1998) also did Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)? But after re-watching those classics, my doubt was alleviated and I was fawning over Allen once again. While I still absolutely love Annie Hall and Manhattan, I was especially taken by Hannah and Her Sisters. It's a moving and dramatic film about love, adultery, loss, and death.  But its power lies in its balance between drama, philosophical profundity, and humor. It's true that the main story follows Hannah, her husband, and the affair her husband has with one of Hannah's sisters.

But the subplot with Allen's character makes the film beautifully poetic. Allen plays Hannah's ex-husband, a television producer and severe hypochondriac. While he is with the doctor for a routine phisical, the doctor finds something he wants to check out. It might be cancer. The possibility of this throws Allen into a tailspin of paranoia and existential dread while he waits for the test results. He visits the doctor again, finds out that he does not have cancer, and leaves the doctor's office literally jumping and skipping for joy. But suddenly he stops. And in that moment, that perfectly paced and edited moment, he realizes that while he is not going to die of cancer, he will die eventually, and this fact fills him with more dread. He then spends time turning to religion, testing out different denominations other than the Judaism he was brought up with: Catholicism and Hari Krishna. Not surprisingly, these options don't work out for him but add lots of classic Allen moments. Ultimately, he learns the great lesson about life--that life is a struggle, that death is inevitable, but that we can all find some measure of happiness despite these ineluctabilities.