Lincoln

Lincoln is a staggering accomplishment that could only have been done because of one man: Daniel Day Lewis. He has a lock on the Oscar for best male actor.

It helps that Spielberg did the very best job he’s ever done as a director.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released November 16, 2012

Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Sally Field, Gloria Reuben, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, and Lee Pace

Rated PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is well into his presidency and the Civil War is destroying the nation. His Emancipation Proclamation threw the country into an even bigger turmoil and now he is trying to pass the 13th Amendment, which would federally ban slavery in the USA. But he is faced with loads of opposition, from people who think the amendment will prolong the already awful war to people who feel that their way of life is being attacked.

At Lincoln’s side are his wife (Field) and oldest son (Gordon-Levitt), along with William Seward (Strathairn), his loyal and good Secretary of State and several other loyal staff members. They have a housemaid/nanny named Elizabeth (Reuben) who helps personalize the struggle against inequality and slavery.

This movie is about Lincoln and his supporters’ efforts to ban slavery with the 13th amendment. Key supporters include Thaddeus Stevens (Jones), Preston Blair (Holbrook), and W.N. Bilbo (Spader). The movie, along with being a clinic on acting, is essentially a political thriller that hinges on a historically powerful personality doing anything he can to get his way.

Critique

Lincoln suffers from a somewhat deification of Lincoln. That said, Lincoln openly and brazenly admits to having broken laws of the land in the ways he has tried to maintain the union and in how he has gathered extraordinary executive power.

That line from the trailer? “I am a president clothed in immense power.” That line is in the movie and is a fairly honest depiction of the hubris of this man and president. Kushner acts like he has written an honest portrayal of Lincoln that shows flaws of vanity and pride, and the portrayal sort of does that, but on second look, there’s an indulgence and a permissiveness being offered for what Lincoln did. There’s kind of an attitude that “Yeah, the Southerners had a good point about state and federal powers and all that, but.. slavery! and.. Lincoln– gosh he was great, wasn’t he?”

Obviously, slavery was and remains an immoral practice and it is a stain on the history of this nation. But less obvious is the problem that this movie fails to highlight– the civil war was not ONLY about slavery. Slavery is what we are taught to accept as THE SINGLE THING that drove the civil war and secession etc. And this movie preaches that doctrine, overlooking very valid arguments about sovereignty, law of the land, rule of law, and the free market.

So writing and deification and indulgence aside, Lincoln as an acting clinic and political thriller is very effective, despite being somewhat too long. It rings a little dramatized, but that is easily forgotten in the power of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. This may be the single best acting performance ever put to film. Not only does he embody the popular vision of Lincoln, which is actually pretty much a caricature, he makes the 16th president a human being who seems like people we know.

Sally Field makes a game effort and does well as Mary Todd, but she looks like Sally Field, so.. Gidget.

There’s not a lot of story told beyond the amendment and family issues, so the movie is a little too long as it deals with these things– making the pace a little slow. But the film is quite understated in general, which is due to a surprisingly deft touch of Mr. Spielberg. That said, don’t go see Lincoln if you’re short on sleep.

Content warnings: grim images of battle, some language

Writing: 4          Acting: 5+          Overall: 5

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War Horse

War Horse is about a horse with a knack for getting free of horrible situations and who is blessed with remarkable strength. This is partly why the movie is good, but is also why the movie lacks somewhat in emotional impact.

Here’s a preview:


The deets:

Released December 25, 2011

Written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, based on the book by Michael Morpurgo

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring: Emily Watson, Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Thewlis, and Eddie Marsan

Rated PG-13

*      *      *      *      *

Story

When farmer Ted Narracot (Mullan) gives in to pride and outbids his wealthy landlord for a sleek thoroughbred instead of a sturdy plow horse, his wife (Watson) is upset and his son, Albert, is over the moon excited. Albert (Irvine) names the horse Joey and trains the horse, finally getting Joey to help him plow an unplowable field. Despite, Albert and Joey’s efforts, however, the harvest of turnips is ruined and Ted ends up selling the horse to a cavalry officer who is shipping off to fight the Germans in Europe. That’s right, this is World War I.

The cavalry officer, Captain Nicholls (Hiddleston) dotes on the horse and follows his commander (Cumberbatch) into a raid on a German camp, but it turns out the camp is very well defended and the horse ends up in German hands. Not long after, Joey, with a big black horse as a friend, winds up being found by a young Belgian or Dutch girl named Emilie (Buckens) and she and her grandfather (Arestrup) keep the horses until they are taken again by Germans. Now Joey and his friend must haul artillery. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the black horse dies of exhaustion.

That’s right, it’s a black horse that dies. The black one always dies to show the seriousness of the situation.

Joey ends up getting away from the German artillery corps and takes off through a no-man’s land between German and British lines. This is the best scene in the movie.

Meanwhile, Albert, Joey’s first owner enlisted in the army and is now in the infantry on the front lines. You can see where this goes from here.

Critique

War Horse is a legitimately sweeping epic. The narrative sweeps across Europe, through countless lives, and comes, as all epics should, full circle, with a single character overcoming odds to find a certain type of nirvana or elevation. Furthermore, the setting of the tale is grand: War-torn Europe. The story doesn’t blink at depicting the savagery of war, nor does it balk at using extra sugar at the sweet moments.

Another thing War Horse doesn’t do is flow very naturally or keep its pace steady. It also is not as effective as it wanted to be, although there are excellent moments, particularly the interactions between Emilie and her grandfather and the dynamics between the Narracot family members. The exchange between the Brit and the German on the battlefield as they free the horse is also excellent. The character of Gunther was a throwaway and a deliberately heavy-handed attempt at adding ‘heart’ to the movie.

But the horse naturally had heart and a story of a boy who is willing to do anything for his best friend, Joey the horse, already has heart, so it’s silly to add artificial heart in the form of a wasted character and obvious silhouette shots.

You will like War Horse. You will probably come out of the film wondering why you didn’t love it. I’ll tell you why: it’s trying a little too hard and the filmmakers know what works and put EVERYTHING in the movie, thus overdoing it a little.

One of the best aspects of War Horse is the lovely set design. Another is the cinematography. There are some truly magnificent shots of different parts of Europe, grounding the story solidly in space and time.

At least War Horse doesn’t blink at the harshness of war. All in all, it’s a perfectly enjoyable, if overlong, film that doesn’t quite satisfy but engages and is filled with very nice performances. Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls is particularly excellent.

Content warnings: Plenty of violence, but none of it graphic at all.

Writing: 4          Acting: 5          Overall: 4.5

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