The final months of the Civil War a time when President Abraham Lincoln struggled to end slavery and bring the Confederate States of America back into the fold of the Union are among the most important moments in Unites States history. They're also the murkiest. Eleventh grade American History tried to teach us — war four scores Emancipation Proclamation the 13th Amendment and a fateful night at the theater — but with a few hundred years' worth of events to process most people leave school knowing that Lincoln made a couple of important moves that turned the world what it is today.
Thankfully we now have a film courtesy of the legendary Steven Spielberg that brings the 16th President's amazing uphill battle to cinematic life. The cold hard facts could not be more impressive.
For Lincoln an adaptation of the Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Spielberg scales down his usual blockbuster sensibilities (last seen in 2011's World War I melodrama War Horse) to craft an intimate portrait of an iconic political figure. To pull it off writer Tony Kushner (Munich and the two-part Angels in America) constructs the film like a play relying on the soothing chameleon presence of Daniel Day-Lewis to breath life into Lincoln's poetic waxing. The president hits roadblock after roadblock on his quest to free the slaves and end the war Kushner and Spielberg weaving in handfuls of characters to pull him in various directions (and accurately represent the real life events). Each time Day-Lewis' Lincoln gracefully dances the dance solving every problem with action and words. Today Lincoln is held in high regard as an inspirational figure. Spielberg shows us why.
Lincoln isn't a full-blown birth-to-death biopic of the Great Emancipator and is all the better for it. Picking up in January of 1865 years into the Civil War Lincoln summons his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to say enough is enough — the time is ripe for the abolishing of slavery. Against the vocal naysayers of the Union and even his personal confidants Lincoln attempts to rally the congressmen he needs to make his bill an amendment. He hires three men (John Hawkes Tim Blake Nelson and the wonderfully outrageous James Spader) to use whatever nonviolent means possible to swing the vote. All the while well-spoken adversaries (like Lee Pace's Fernando Wood) take to the House of Representatives floor to discredit Lincoln and dissuade congressmen. Keeping the progressive foot in the door is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) a foul-mouthed powerhouse who shares Lincoln's ambitious dreams of equality.
The story is simple but Kushner doesn't shy away from laying down lengthy passages of political discussion in order to show the importance of Lincoln's task. It's dense material spruced up with Kushner's ear for dialogue. But even so it occasionally meanders into Ken Burns documentary territory. Case in point: there are so many characters with beards in Lincoln Spielberg even flashes title cards underneath their opening scenes just so we're not lost. The fact-heavy approach takes getting used to but Spielberg and Kushner adeptly dig deep beyond the political gabfest to find a human side to Lincoln. He's a gentle man a warm man and a hilarious man. The duo's Honest Abe never shies away from a good story — at times he's like Grandpa from The Simpsons lost in his own anecdotes (much to the dismay of his cabinet). Day-Lewis chews scenery as hinted at in the trailers but with absolute restraint. That makes his sudden outbursts really pop. When Lincoln becomes fed up with pussyfooting politicians like the quivering representatives played by Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg Day-Lewis cranks the high-pitched president up to 10. He never falters.
There's a great deal of humor and heart in Lincoln — partially because the circus-like antics of Washington D.C. feel all too close-to-home in this day and age — and Spielberg paces it all with expert camera work. The drama is iffier: a side story involving Lincoln's son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) teases an interesting family dynamic that is never fully explored and is clunky when dropped to the wayside in favor of larger issues. Same goes for Lincoln's wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) who continues to grieve for the couple's lost child. They are important issues but they don't quite work in the fabric of this specific narrative.
The larger world outside the offices of the White House and Congress is often forgotten too — we hear a lot of war talk without seeing a whole lot of war. Instances where Lincoln ventures out into fields of the dead have emotional impact but we feel disconnected from it. Where Spielberg really gets it right is in the chaos of the presidential occupation. There is no easy task for Lincoln. "I may have been wrong about that " says Abe referencing his issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation "but I wanted the people to tell me if I was." Day-Lewis understands Lincoln's complex internal thought and brings it forward in each scene: humble confident deadly and compassionate.
Spielberg's technical team once again wows and echoes the lead performance. Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski's contrasting photography near chiaroscuro makes the beautiful set and production design hyper real and highlights the actors' aging faces. Composer John Williams returns once again but with a score as low-key as Day-Lewis' character — a change of pace when compared to War Horse. It's all up to par with Spielberg's past work without turning Lincoln into a flashy period drama.
Day-Lewis was the talk of the town when the first Lincoln trailers made their way on the web. Surprisingly however Lincoln wows because it's a well-balanced ensemble drama. Lee Jones delivers his best work in a decade as the grouchy idealist Spader delivers the comedic performance of the fall season and every scene introduces another familiar face to add additional gravitas to the picture (as opposed to being a distracting cameo fest). S. Epatha Merkerson's late-in-the-game scene opens up the tear ducts in a way that none of her male costars can.
If history isn't one of your interests Lincoln may not rouse you — background reading not required but conversation moves at lightning speed and without much hand-holding. It's a change of pace for Spielberg and a welcome one. With all the bells and whistles that come with being the biggest director of all time Lincoln looks amazing sounds amazing and has enough talent to make it an exhilarating learning experience.
Although its Mideast trappings have become terribly familiar in any number of recent movies from Syriana to The Kingdom to director Ridley Scott’s own Black Hawk Down William Monaghan’s (The Departed) tight script still has pertinent things to say about the lies and deceptions inherent in our covert operations in the region. Cloaked in a cat and mouse thriller format the story centers on Roger Ferris (DiCaprio)--a top CIA operative fluent in the Arab language-- who roams from country to country trying to penetrate top secret terrorist cells and uncover plans for mayhem. In trying to smoke out a shadowy terrorist who has been directing a series of key bombings against civilian targets in Europe Ferris comes up with the ingenious idea to create a phony rival group that appears to be taking credit for the “real” Al Qaeda-type organization’s business. Complicating matters for Ferris is his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) back at CIA headquarters who sees the world in black and white and believes there is no such thing as going too far to achieve goals in the best interest of the U.S. Both must also deal with the head of Jordanian Intelligence Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) who recognizes that each is useful for his own counter-terrorism efforts. There are a LOT of explosions that keep getting in the way of the dramatics--and much of the Crowe/DiCaprio teaming is played out on opposite sides of a phone line. But Body of Lies incorporates a first-rate cast including many local Middle Eastern performers who make strong impressions. Crowe--adopting some sort of quasi-southern accent (apparently from Arkansas)--creates an amusing CIA boss who sees the world from one perspective--his. Juxtaposing his duties to family as well as America Crowe creates a full blooded portrait of a husband father and CIA lifer who thinks he knows all the answers. His few scenes when he is face to face with co-star DiCaprio are worth the wait and both stars play off each other with ease. DiCaprio is back in Blood Diamond territory here as a rogue operative using his own ingenuity to make a difference. His on-screen command of some Arabic phrases is unforced and impressive and he earns the audience’s empathy particularly when he winds up in well over his head. There are also some nice scenes opposite a Muslim nurse he strikes up a relationship with while in the hospital. Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani is beautiful and nicely understated in these moments. Strong who also is very fine in another of the week’s new releases RocknRolla is suave and powerful as the shrewd Jordanian Crowe and DiCaprio cross swords with. Other regional actors fill out their roles with uncommon authenticity. There can be no question Ridley Scott is a master of the film medium. Body of Lies moves very well and thanks to the Scott style manual has lots of urgency. Employing his usual use of multiple cameras getting simultaneous angles in every scene Scott doesn’t rely on actors having to do a lot of takes and in the process manages to give the film a documentary kind of feel. Although the filmmaking approach sometimes leads to more confusion than we would like it also puts us right in the center of the action. And there’s plenty of that. Working for the fourth time with Crowe the two clearly have a rapport and similar seat-of-the-pants way of working which DiCaprio seems to have picked up nicely. If this isn’t as impressive an overall achievement as Black Hawk Down it’s still an entertainment that is a cut above some of the other recent spate of Middle East-set thrillers. Locations are well used too with Northern Africa and specifically the Moroccan environs filling in for the some dozen countries identified on the screen.
Top Story: Prosecutor Suggests Michael Jackson May Flee U.S.
The prosecutor in Michael Jackson's child molestation case opposes reducing the pop star's $3 million bail out of concern he might flee the country, The Associated Press reports. Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon's office said Jackson's wealth requires at least the current bail, arguing the singer might choose to live out his life as "a wealthy absconder" rather than face a life term in a California prison. According to the motion filed by Deputy District Attorney Gerald McC. Franklin, there is concern Jackson might flee to a country that doesn't have an extradition agreement with the United States. "Mr. Jackson is known and adored--'adored' is not too strong a word--in many of the countries of Europe, the Near East and Africa," the motion said. "The defendant here is 'Michael Jackson, international celebrity,' a man whose lifestyle to date would not have prepared him to adapt readily to a prison environment and routine, and whose physical stature will present its own problems for him in making the necessary adjustments." In addition to child molestation, a grand jury indicted Jackson with a conspiracy count that alleged child abduction, false imprisonment and extortion.
Posh Stands By Her Man
Former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham says in Marie Claire's July issue that she has faith in her husband, English soccer star David Beckham. "I know my David's never cheated on me," she said in the interview in response to allegations Beckham had affairs with his former personal assistant and a model. The Beckhams recently announced that Victoria--still known as Posh Spice to many fans of the 1990s girl band--and their two children would move to Spain to be with David, who left Manchester United to play for Real Madrid last year. She also denied rumors she stayed with David to make money from the 'Beckham brand.' "I couldn't live a lie and it would be unfair on our children," she said. "We are working on things together, but it is absolutely not a business arrangement."
Sean Combs Didn't Expect Tony Nod for Raisin
Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, who is currently starring in the Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, told Reuters in a recent telephone interview he isn't bothered being the only star in the production not to get a Tony Award nomination. "I didn't expect to get nominated. That was not my motivation. I'm very realistic as a person about life and how you have to pay your dues and about the level I'm at as an actor. I have my time for awards," Combs said, adding: "There's nothing that can compare to people laughing about you for something and then every night, standing room only." Initial ticket sales for A Raisin in the Sun broke the 1,078-seat Royale Theatre record and routinely sells out.
Combs Goes From B'way To Politics
In other "P. Diddy" news, Combs told the New York Post Sunday he hopes to question President Bush and likely Democratic nominee John Kerry on his new MTV show, tentatively titled Project Change. The 34-year-old hip-hop impresario told the paper he plans to scout the streets of Harlem, Brooklyn and Detroit for "real people" to ask the questions. "The people who usually ask the candidates questions are screened, and I'm going to use real people off the streets to get their questions out there," Combs told The Post. "I'm going to make Kerry and Bush squirm." His goal is to encourage a record number of young people and minorities to vote.
Helen Hunt Has Baby Girl
Mad About You star Helen Hunt gave birth to a daughter on May 13 in Beverly Hills, Calif., Reuters reports. The baby, named MaKena lei Gordon Carnahan, is the first child for Hunt and director Matthew Carnahan. The couple began dating in 2001. The 40-year-old actress and her baby are "doing very well," her publicist said Friday.
Kirk, Anne Douglas Renew Wedding Vows
Anne and Kirk Douglas renewed their wedding vows for the second time in 50 years Sunday before 300 guests in a traditional Jewish ceremony at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif., the AP reports. Guests included former First Lady Nancy Reagan, Merv Griffin, Dan Aykroyd, Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis, Vidal Sassoon and Anjelica Huston. Family members included the Douglas' son Peter and Kirk Douglas' son, producer Joel Douglas, from his first marriage. Actors Eric and Michael Douglas were unable to attend. A publicist for Kirk Douglas said Michael Douglas was with his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is currently filming in Europe.
24 Whittles Cast for Upcoming Season
The Counter Terrorism Unit on Fox's drama 24 is getting its pink slip. Sources tell Reuters the actors who play Jack Bauer's (Kiefer Sutherland) CTU colleagues have been informed that their options as series regulars will not be picked up for the upcoming fall season. That includes Reiko Aylesworth and James Badge Dale, who play CTU members Michelle Dessler and Chase Edmunds. The two could return could return next season for guest appearances, along with Carlos Bernard, Zachary Quinto and Daniel Dae Kim, who played CTU members on a recurring basis. Elisha Cuthbert, who plays Jack's daughter and CTU analyst Kimberly Bauer, is expected to return next season.
Death Row Must Pay for Man's Injuries
Death Row Records was ordered to pay more than $162,000 to a man who said label owner Marion "Suge" Knight and his bodyguards attacked him at a recording studio in 2001, the AP reports. A Superior Court jury ruled that although Knight, who was not in the studio during the altercation, was not personally liable for the fight, Death Row Records was responsible for the actions of his security guards. Dwayne H. Baudy said he went to Con Am Studios in November of 2001 to meet an independent rap producer when he and a friend got into a confrontation with Death Row's security chief, Reginald Wright Jr. Wright said Baudy and his friend brandished guns after they were barred