Saturday, November 24, 2012

Movie Reviews-Lincoln, The Campaign

directed by Steven Spielberg
Some people believe that Abraham Lincoln was the country's greatest President because he successfully kept the country intact during the bloodiest war the US experienced. Lincoln not only defeated the traitors but started the legal machinery to reduce and/or eliminate formal statutory support for white supremacy. However, though he opposed slavery, as Lincoln took pains to make clear throughout his life he wasn't necessarily overly fond of either abolitionists or black people and would have been content to keep the Southern states and slavery in the Union. It was the Southern states' intransigence, paranoia, arrogance and fatal inability to count that resulted in the Civil War, the effects of which still ripple throughout American society today. At some points Lincoln thought that "colonization", by which he meant the removal of Blacks from America and their placement in Africa, was the best solution to the race problem.

Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, isn't quite a hagiography but it's pretty doggone close. Often films like this can be problematic, especially if the subject is still living or has well known faults. With Abraham Lincoln neither of these things is true so Spielberg is free to paint Lincoln in broad heroic colors. He is much aided in this by the title role actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, who really ought to receive an Oscar right now. Day-Lewis becomes Lincoln. He is Lincoln. I think he will be Lincoln for anyone who sees this film. Method acting. It works. Like much of Spielberg's popular work , Lincoln has a gauzy, upbeat, optimistic message.

America is a can-do place. Anyone standing in the way of freedom and doing what's right is just a temporary and probably misguided obstacle. Such people should be more pitied than hated. The film's music soundtrack, by John Williams, suitably tears at the heartstrings or makes one want to pump their fist in the air where appropriate. This is of course manipulative, but all the same it's good film making if you know what you're doing and obviously that's the case with Spielberg. 
Lincoln has a lot of exposition. Be aware that this is a LONG film. It is 2.5 hrs. Very little of this is battle scenes, with the exception of the intro which shows Black US troops engaged in a desperate struggle with Confederates who had recently massacred other black troops. As a black soldier later explains to the President "We decided we weren't taking any prisoners that day". Black soldiers are also displayed prominently throughout the film. This is historically accurate but has been so rare in Civil War movies that one wonders if Spielberg wasn't taking a subtle shot at the still common myth that white men alone fought and died for Black people's freedom. No there were a lot of Black men fighting, something that infuriated the Confederates, as their entire casus belli was that blacks were an inferior cowardly race that couldn't fight and were only suited for slavery. The Confederacy generally refused to take black soldiers prisoner or treat them as POW's instead of escaped slaves, something that hindered prisoner exchanges, increased brutality toward POW's and lengthened the war.
The struggles in the movie Lincoln are not primarily on the battlefield but within Lincoln's family, his cabinet and the House of Representatives.
As Lincoln explains, the Emancipation Proclamation could be legally justified as a war act but it might not necessarily pass legal muster post-war, especially in slave owning Union border states. No, what Lincoln wanted was the Thirteenth Amendment, to outlaw slavery for once and for all. In this he is fiercely opposed by the Congressional Democrats, who coalesce around Ohio Representative George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie). Lincoln's own cabinet is lukewarm to the idea. It appears the amendment lacks the votes needed to pass. As Lincoln's Secretary of State and close friend William Seward (David Strathairn) reminds him there are plenty of Northern whites who dislike slavery but don't want free blacks living in their state. Other white leaders like NY Congressman Wood (Lee Pace) fear that any sort of anti-slavery legislation is just a Trojan Horse that will cause mandatory black voters, black representatives, black educators and most disgusting of all, black intermarriage with whites. In Wood's view to tolerate is to require.

Wood spends a great deal of time baiting Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who as a "radical Republican" really does believe in what was called "social equality" between black and white. Other Lincoln advisers want him to go slow on the whole anti-slavery thing as there are back door negotiations for Southern surrender with Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley).
Mrs. Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) combines a fierce sharp tongued public loyalty to her husband with emotional volatility and vicious grief derived guilt tripping behind closed doors. She is determined to prevent their oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from enlisting in the Army. And as she calmly explains to her husband she had better get what she wants or he'll have no peace. So as you can see the President has many issues to resolve. Lincoln deals with this stress by listening to everyone and then telling a story or joke from his frontier days. This provides some of the film's comic relief. Many of Lincoln's jokes are slightly offensive or simply not funny. People get bored with his stories. As legislative debate is mundane Spielberg tries to spice this up with cutaways to the attempts to "influence" legislators by the 1865 equivalent of lobbyists, who then as now, are professionally and personally offended by a man who won't stay bought.

There's no drama in the outcome since, as you know we DO have a Thirteenth Amendment. The drama is in the process. Spielberg takes some liberties with history but it's a movie not a documentary. Watching people as they might have been in 1865 I am of course quite happy that I didn't live then. This is not only for the obvious but also for less apparent items or behavior that we take for granted, like refrigeration, anti-perspirant, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, sterile dentistry, medical treatment that goes beyond amputation, and less visible body hair (on BOTH genders).
Lincoln makes a play at straddling the line between approving principled and unyielding opposition to evil (as embodied by Thaddeus Stevens) and pragmatic actions to get most of what you want when faced with real world difficulties and opposition (as embodied by Abraham Lincoln). Unsurprisingly the film comes down on the side of pragmatism. There have been few men who never compromised at some point, especially in a democratic system. But I would also point out that often, societal changes are brought about by men who generally eschewed compromise. Your views may vary on this. Should a representative reflect the views of his constituents or lead them as his conscience requires? This tension between purism and pragmatism will never go away. Without pragmatism, purists can fall into a cold white light or empty black hole that makes no allowances for human frailties or needs. So purism can be rejected. But without purists pushing and kicking them, pragmatic politicians become undistinguished grey men who have no other beliefs other than the pursuit of money and re-election. They do things like vote present on the great issues of the day so that they don't jeopardize future presidential bids, say they voted for the war before they voted against it or claim in public that they want every American's vote while privately dismissing 47% of voters as lazy leeches.
Lincoln did a great job of capturing the flowery and precise high language of the day as well as some of the earthier slang. Thaddeus Stevens certainly knew how to insult a man. Other actors/actresses in this film include John Hawkes, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Gloria Reuben, Lukas Haas, David Oyelowo, Tim Blake Nelson, Julie White, Wayne Duvall and many many more. This was the best movie, or at least the best acting I've seen in a while. Day-Lewis knocks the ball out of the park but Tommy Lee Jones shows that Day-Lewis wasn't the only heavyweight actor in the film. As mentioned, Lincoln has only a few scenes of violence. It's PG-13 not R. There are some long views of battlefields after a skirmish has been concluded and some visits to a blood spattered field hospital. 

The Campaign
directed by Jay Roach
I thought this comedy film was very funny but it is not a subtle satire like Election. It's really more slapstick. In fact it's probably best understood as a collection of skits, most of which hit but a few of which miss. So if you don't occasionally mind something that wears its silliness on its sleeve and doesn't try to hide it, you will probably enjoy this movie. It's quite predictable but sometimes knowing where you're going doesn't matter as long as you enjoy the ride. 

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is a rather dim North Carolina Democratic congressman. He's running for election unopposed though as many of his constituents are either just as dim as he or simply turned off from the political process. Although Brady talks in broad generalities of Jesus, football and America he's really forgotten why he entered politics in the first place. The only thing he cares about now are the side benefits of political office, such as adulation from flunkies and intimate one on one meetings with dedicated supportive female voters. 

This last causes a problem for Cam as possibly drunk he left a remarkably detailed message on what he thought was his girlfriend's home phone detailing his erotic plans for her, some of which are still illegal in the state. But Cam dialed the wrong number and actually left his sexual fantasies and instructions on the voicemail of a born again Christian couple while they were eating dinner with their children. The voicemail goes viral.
Although Brady has always played ball with corporate interests, two prominent and rather unethical businessmen, the Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd) think that it might be time to hedge their bets. They decide to run a candidate on the Republican ticket against Brady. They choose the naive, pudgy and somewhat less than masculine Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) who is the town tourism director. Marty is the son of a  Motch Brothers' employee. Marty is a source of continual disappointment to his hard driving father Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), a unreconstructed bigot who satisfies his longings for the bygone days of segregation by having his Asian-American housekeeper speak as if she walked in from an Amos-N-Andy casting call circa 1946. YMMV as to whether this is funny. I didn't think so.
Cam quickly patches things up with his icily attractive blonde hypocritical wife, Rose (Katherine LaNasa) who doesn't care what Cam does as long as he wins and moves on to higher office. Cam can't really take Marty's challenge seriously. Cam thinks Marty will fade into irrelevance once Cam shares some pictures of the rather fey Marty working out at the women's gym Curves and doing some other things which don't fit into a virile image. But Marty has some unseen strengths that he derives mostly from his sweet, supportive and overweight wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) and somewhat less so from the ruthless Motch approved Sith Knight campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott). Marty finds that nice guy or not, he wants to win and after a few reservations, starts to get just as negative as Cam. Cam turns to his good old boy campaign manager Mitch Wilson (Jason Sudeikis) for more ammo and the fight descends to new depths.

You can probably tell where this all ends up but as I wrote, it's the journey which is funny. I enjoyed this movie but then again I like slapstick. If you like slapstick you will probably like this as well.

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