Friday, May 10, 2013

Lincoln (2012)

In describing Lincoln, one adjective comes to mind: subdued. Now, think about the meaning of this word, the subject matter for which the film revolves around, and the creator of the film itself: good ‘ol Spielberg.

In my Invictus review, I stated, quote, “[Clint Eastwood] deserves a film where his ideas can be executed in a way that’s visually gargantuan yet narratively humble.” However, if there is any other director who deserves this, to me, it’s Steven Spielberg. This man has pretty much left his fingerprints on pretty much every genre known to man: comedy, science fiction, horror, pulp-style adventure, film noir, drama (lots of drama), animated, and war. Hell, he could make an Asian kung-fu film and it’d probably be one of the best films ever.

So, a historical film based on one of the most fascinating figures in U.S. history, unquestionably, had to be made by Spielberg. Everyone knew it and everyone knew it would be exceedingly competent. What other standards did he have to meet? Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? While that film (also released in 2012) was surprisingly better received than it had any right to be, a guy with an indecipherable name and who has the credits of Day Watch and Wanted under his belt directed it. Point goes to Spielberg!

The question was how he was going to tackle it? He has previously made historical films and all of them were maturely grandeur with out-sized emotions and scenery. From the black-and-white beauty that juxtaposed the macabre and revolting subject matter of Schindler’s List to the opening twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, subtly wasn’t exactly this man’s forte. However, he has demolished all preconceived conceptions of him with this breath of fresh air that both purifies and mildly poisons me.

I’m sure shallow New Age folk would just pass this off as a biography of Lincoln’s life. Wrong! The film actually starts when Lincoln is the current president and it focuses on Lincoln’s final four months of living. The specific storyline revolves around Lincoln desperately and tenaciously trying to get the 13th Amendment passed whilst in the midst of the Civil War. Would this end the war? Was a method to directly end the war more important? Whatever the answer to these questions were, Lincoln felt that freeing the slaves was crucial to a better country and was willing to do anything to achieve that goal including bribing conflicting Democrats. Lincoln, also, had to juggle personal problems involving the family he has built; a major problem involves his son, Robert, passionately wanting to fight in the war against his family’s wishes.

Now, in my Argo review, I secured a majority of space as a diatribe of the Academy for naming it the best picture of 2012. I still don’t agree with their decision, but I digress. I feel I should begin my critique of the film by connection to the film and its corresponding Oscars. Or at least the main Oscar: Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis.

It is pretty much fate that one of the most masterful directors to handle this material would snatch one of the most masterful actors working in Hollywood currently. After a streak of playing cynical characters in films such as Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood, the latter of the two is currently unseen by me, he has decided to step into the hat and beard of Abraham Lincoln. And thank God for that. His Oscar was well deserved because he is utterly hypnotic and completely embodies Honest Abe with a warm voice and an occasionally threatening tone that’s mannered in nature.

Of course, Spielberg has finesse for selecting a well-rounded and replete supporting cast. Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife is bold, intense, and committed. Her performance is nostalgically great, bringing her back to her Oscars days in the 70s and 80s. The way the dynamic between Lincoln and his wife unfolds is intense and the actors play it to a tee. This film and Men In Black III also provided us with a Tommy Lee Jones double feature. While filmgoers were either satisfied or disappointed with M.I.B. III, people were united in praise of Lee Jones’ passionate performance as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who is depicted with a raspy voice and gruff personality. Lee Jones is always blasé yet intense, but the level of that depends on the film. In this film, he is somewhat blasé and very intense. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who must have a contract that he must do at least two films a year and is shaping up to be Shia LaBeouf of the 2010s and the male Emma Stone, shines as Robert, Lincoln’s son.

The film, also, won an Oscar for its production design. And…they weren’t wrong. The whole mise-en scene is insidiously sumptuous. With the exception of the occasionally circular, carousel-like motion of the camera that starts out artistic and then becomes annoying, I appreciate the modest yet colossal camerawork of the film, which almost feels like a stage play and continually evoked HBO.

The camera bathes itself in a dank color pallete. It’s grimy, lugubrious, austere, and sophisticated; the perfect way to film this. Even when the camera is bright, it doesn’t allow itself to be overly bright, still retaining that dark and cleverly musty shade. There is, however, one shot of the Capitol on voting day for the Amendment that is implicitly gorgeous. Of course, Spielberg’s heavy orchestral music manipulated me and played me like a piano. And that’s just fine with me.

However, the film is not a perfect one. The major flaw involves the fact that certain aspects of the screenplay and structure that do work work against itself. For example, I appreciate the minimal, dialogue-oriented structure, in theory. I appreciate its meticulous, absorbant pace, in theory. I appreciate the multitude of conversations that makes the viewer more anxious for the arrival of the central goal. However, those three aspects work against itself, in the sense that there are some conversations that aren’t interesting. When they appear, they bring the film to a halt and makes the measured pace feel sluggish and monotonous.

Another issue I have with the film is the occasional emotional inertia of the film. Again, I understand that the film is centered on logistics, opinions (which are expressed via mesmerizing debates), and situation, but when the film tries for emotion, there are a couple of times where the film doesn’t deliver totally on that level.

For example, the revelation of the status of Lincolns’ son, Willie, feels forced and doesn’t land an emotional punch. In addition, the subplot involving Robert craving to fight in the war against his parents’ wishes, to me, simply boils down to the generic “child-has-a-dream-but-the-parents-are-unsupportive-but-they-eventually-realize-the-error-of-their-ways-and-support-their-child’s-dream” plotline. It was old when Disney did it. I don’t even care if this part of the film was real or not. It still, in my opinion, adds up to nothing.

There are, also, little things that irritated me. For example, there is a political debate that has a line that foreshadowed women’s suffrage that I felt was forced, idiotic, and unnecessary, almost as if the speaker was looking at the camera and winking with irony. Also, while I love the speeches for the most part, some of them become uncomfortably elongated and almost self-consciously portentous.

However, there are a multitude of genius moments to make up for that. The climactic voting scene is modestly made but vastly intense, to the point where I was lingering on every word. It’s also genius that the verdict of this scene is said off screen. While most of the film is dialogue-oriented, the reaction is, in this scene, portrayed via camerawork, ambiance, the stalwart eyes of the actors, and minimal yet hefty scenes that follow it. And the scene of all the deceased and rotting corpses from the Civil War is harrowing. And the ending is constructed in a lyrical and absolutely beautiful way. And the film, also, works as a biting, barbed, and yet sly political commentary. The incessant disagreements, the heated debates, the constant put-downs, the acceptance of bribes in exchange for their true beliefs, etc; all of these aspects seem to skewer and mock, in an almost embarrassed tone, politics and their inability to detect what is morally correct. However, the commentary is executed obliquely and secretly. And in the midst of the magnificent performances, the fetching, ingenious production values, and the over-the-top facets of the film, the film is elevated, and can be labeled as laudable, because of one adjective: subdued. That’ll do Spielberg. That’ll do.

RATING: Three and one quarter stars out of four

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