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. 11th 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 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 biography Doris Kearns Goodwin's 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 road block after road block 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 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 confidantes, 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 non-violent 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 Stuhlberg, 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're important issues, but 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 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, but surprisingly, 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.
[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures (2)]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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Ice Age was Hollywood's hottest film with a titanic $47.9 million, setting records as the year's biggest opening by far and the best ever for March.
Also generating plenty of St. Patrick's weekend box office green were the openings of Resident Evil with $18.2 million and Showtime with $15.4 million. The three new powerhouse films sent The Time Machine traveling to fourth place with $10.9 million and forced We Were Soldiers to regroup in fifth place with $8.8 million.
Driven by Ice, Evil and Showtime, key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- enjoyed summer sized ticket sales of over $137 million, a level distributors said had never before been achieved in the month of March. Business was up an astounding 75 percent from last year's $78 million and was up about 39 percent from nearly $99 million the previous weekend this year.
THE TOP TEN
20th Century Fox's PG rated animated feature Ice Age opened atop the chart with an astonishing ESTIMATED $47.85 million at 3,316 theaters ($14,430 per theater).
Directed by Chris Wedge, it features the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo and Denis Leary.
Ice's average per theater was the highest for any film playing this weekend.
"The March record was $32.2 million for Liar, Liar so there's a new king of March by a long shot," a very happy Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning.
Ice ranks as the year's biggest opening, easily beating the three-day weekend record set last week by DreamWorks' opening of The Time Machine with $22.6 million and the four-day weekend record set Feb. 15-18 by New Line's opening of John Q. with $23.6 million.
"It obviously became an event," Snyder pointed out. "I don't think anybody could have projected (over) $47 million. You'd look and you were optimistic (saying it would do) low-$30 millions. This is beyond anything (anticipated)."
Focusing on who was on hand, Snyder noted, "It did become an event. We had a lot of teenagers. We had a lot of non-family members. We got everybody. From Friday evening (exit polls we had) 70 percent family audience members -- parents and children -- and 30 percent non-family audience members. Of that 30 percent non-family, 60 percent were under 25. That's a big number. To be drawing teenagers in to an animated feature on the first weekend on their own is pretty terrific. So it bodes well."
Did they like it? "They loved it," Snyder replied. "The highest rating group were the young males, oddly enough. I don't have (the details yet this early Sunday morning). It played ethnically. It played every which way."
Asked what accounts for the film's titanic success, Snyder commented, "The movie is wonderful, but I think first and foremost the (marketing) campaign said, 'Come. This is a lot of fun. It's cool and it's hip and you're going to love it.'"
Looking ahead, what is Ice likely to wind up grossing domestically? "I have no idea yet," Snyder said, laughing. "Let's wait for that second weekend. But, boy oh boy, what a way to go!"
Clearly, Fox chose the best possible time to release the picture. "I think it helped certainly to be the first of the kid pictures of the next few weeks to hit the screens," Snyder said. "That didn't hurt."
Sony's Screen Gems label launched its R rated thriller Resident Evil from Constantin Film, New Legacy Film and Davis Films in second place to a killer ESTIMATED $18.2 million at 2,528 theaters ($7,200 per theater).
Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, it stars Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez and Eric Mabius.
"What a weekend," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning, referring to both Evil's strong opening and the overall strength of the marketplace. "I looked back five years and I can't find a $100 million weekend in March -- much less a $135-140 million weekend."
Blake observed, "It's a $30 million negative film and we'll be in profit by about 2 o'clock this afternoon. I think it exceeded everyone's expectations. It really is a case of (getting) our audience -- males -- but also very strong young female (attendance). So we really got both the older teenagers and the young adults, both male and female, which I think you can credit (to) the casting of Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez that really expanded the normal horror or video game young male skew.
"Basically, what we ended up with in our exit polls was 85 percent in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) from young males and 77 percent definite recommend. But we had 82 percent in the Top Two Boxes and 70 percent definite recommend from young females. We believe that's expanding your normal audience, which tends to be loyal but contained, and we got it a little broader than that even on a pretty tough weekend (in terms of competition)."
Blake clearly was pleased with Screen Gems' marketing of the picture: "Again, Screen Gems and (marketing head) Valerie Van Galder really, as usual, did their terrific marketing job."
Evil, Blake said, is being released through Sony in "domestic and certain international territories, including all of Latin America."
"It's very exciting for Constantin," Mitch Horwits, president of Constantin, which financed the film's production. Constantin, which is owned by Bernd Eichinger, is based in Munich.
Horwits, who is based in Los Angeles, observed, "We're extremely excited. It's probably an understatement, but I don't know what else to say. Screen Gems and Sony did a fantastic job. They had a terrific campaign. They hit the core audience and they really helped expand the core."
Evil was, Horwits said, "the first picture we had done with Screen Gems and we're certainly hoping to do more business (with Sony and Screen Gems)."
Putting the film's cost in the very modest area of $30 million, Horwits said it should be profitable for all concerned. In terms of international distribution, Constantin sells its product territory by territory. "We utilize sales agents," he explained. "In this case, Intermedia acted as Constantin's sales agent and licensed the picture outside of Germany and France. We have a French partner, who was involved in the production, called Davis Films. We basically hire (Intermedia) as our agent. They have no financial interest in the picture. They act as our sales agent and weren't involved in the domestic deal. That's something that we did."
Warner Bros.' PG-13 rated action comedy Showtime from Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment third with a solid ESTIMATED $15.36 million at 2,917 theaters ($5,266 per theater).
Directed by Tom Dey, it stars Robert De Niro, Eddie Murphy and Rene Russo.
"We're right on track and, hopefully, we'll hang in there for a while," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning.
DreamWorks and Warner Bros.' PG-13 rated time travel fantasy drama The Time Machine fell three pegs to fourth place in its second week with a less timely ESTIMATED $10.9 million (-52%) at 2,958 theaters (+14 theaters; $3,698 per theater). Its cume is approximately $40.1 million.
The film is being released domestically by DreamWorks and internationally by Warner Bros., which co-financed its production.
Directed by Simon Wells, it stars Guy Pearce.
Paramount and Icon Productions' R rated Vietnam war drama We Were Soldiers slipped three rungs to fifth place in its third week with a calmer ESTIMATED $8.8 million (-38%) at 3,143 theaters (theater count unchanged; ($2,800 per theater). Its cume is approximately $53.6 million, heading for $80-90 million in domestic theaters.
Written and directed by Randall Wallace, it stars Mel Gibson.
"In light of the competition, I think it's a good hold," Paramount Distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning, adding that besides being up against Ice's record setting launch Soldiers also had to contend with the fact that "Showtime was certainly directed toward our audience, as well."
Asked what summer box office business would be like if we're already seeing $137 million-plus weekends in mid-March, Lewellen replied, "I don't know that that necessarily bodes anything for the summer. It goes back to (the concept that) if you put the product in that so-called off-time or those weaker times when the market is not as broad, if the right product is there the market will expand to accommodate it. It's been proven over and over and over.
"I think (Fox) had a really great campaign on the picture. It really appealed to the family audience, but it seemed to be hip enough to get younger people, too. It goes back to the R rating hurts you on movies more so than it did a year or two years ago. There's no question about it (that PG and PG-13 films now have an advantage)."
New Line's R rated urban appeal buddy comedy All About the Benjamins dropped three notches to sixth place in its second week with a slower ESTIMATED $4.85 million (-52%) at 1,519 theaters (+14 theaters; $3,193 per theater). Its cume is approximately $17.4 million.
Directed by Kevin Bray, it stars Ice Cube and Mike Epps.
Miramax and Universal's R rated romantic comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights fell three slots in its third week to seventh place with a dull ESTIMATED $4.6 million (-35%) at 2,312 theaters (-87 theaters; $1,989 per theater). Its cume is approximately $30.1 million.
Directed by Michael Lehmann, it stars Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
New Line's PG-13 rated man-against-the-system drama John Q dropped three rungs to eighth place in its fifth week with an okay ESTIMATED $3.73 million (-37%) at 2,019 theaters (-363 theaters; $1,845 per theater). Its cume is approximately $64.5 million, heading for $70 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Nick Cassavetes, it stars Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Kimberly Elise and Ray Liotta.
Universal, DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment's PG-13 rated drama A Beautiful Mind -- which has eight Oscar nominations including best picture and saw director Ron Howard win the Directors Guild of America's award Saturday night -- slid one notch to ninth place in its 13th week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $3.41 million (-12%) at 1,533 theaters (-260 theaters; $2,225 per theater). Its cume is approximately $149.2 million. How far it goes past $150 million will depend on how well it does Oscar night.
Directed by Ron Howard, the Brian Grazer production stars Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Buena Vista/Disney's G rated animated Return to Never Land, down four notches place in its fifth week with a quieter ESTIMATED $2.3 million (-49%) at 1,895 theaters (-603 theaters; $1,197 per theater). Its cume is approximately $45.3 million.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Universal's R rated drama Harrison's Flowers to a quiet ESTIMATED $0.84 million at 390 theaters ($2,120 per theater).
Produced and directed by Elie Chouraqui, it stars Andie MacDowell, Elias Koteas, Brendan Gleeson, Adrien Brody and David Strathairn.
IFC Films' unrated erotic drama Y Tu Mama Tambien opened to an encouraging ESTIMATED $0.43 million at 42 theaters ($10,170 per theater).
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, it stars Maribel Verdu, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.
Fox Searchlight Pictures' R rated romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein arrived to a very sexy ESTIMATED $0.36 million at 26 theaters ($13,650 per theater). Its cume after five days is approximately $0.4 million.
Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, it stars Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen.
"It's a tiny independent film with complete unknowns and we're thrilled," Fox Searchlight distribution president Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "It's just working really well everywhere. The screen average is a little misleading (and would be a lot higher except) that we took some suburban and outlying theaters in Chicago and San Francisco. The New York numbers are very, very big and the central runs are quite big everywhere. The New York numbers (have) quite a few theaters in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. Friday and Saturday the Sunset (in Los Angeles) had over $13,000, so they'll be close to $20,000 (for the weekend). I felt that this film had such strong playability that we opened it a little wider and it's working really nicely."
Asked about plans to expand Jessica, Gilula replied, "This week we add 14 cities with 37 screens. We'll be at 65 theaters this Friday. The following week we add another 19 cities and we'll be over 100 screens. In the fourth week, which will be the week of Apr. 5, we expect to be national in all the major and some key cities with 400-500 theaters."
It also helps that Jessica has earned favorable reviews from most critics. "I would say that 80-90 percent are three to four stars," Gilula said. "There's only a couple that didn't care for it. We had a negative New York Times review and were able to survive that because everything else in New York was extremely positive. We're off and running.
"It's one of those Cinderella stories. You know, for every Jessica there's probably a thousand independent films that never see the light of day. For everyone involved in this film, it's like winning the lottery. They had such a tough time. It was turned down by a lot of distributors. It was turned down by Sundance. The conventional wisdom is you can't launch a romantic comedy with unknown stars in it. Where do you go with that? How do you get people to go see it? As you know, we did a word of mouth screening program and the reviewers embraced it. Our gang (at Fox Searchlight) really liked the movie, so we went out and worked it."
Buena Vista/Disney held 1,151 sneak previews Saturday night of its G rated drama The Rookie and said the picture was well attended and played very well.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, it stars Dennis Quaid.
A BV spokeswoman said the sneaks played to 80 percent capacity with a 90 percent exit poll score. "The demographics were 53 percent male and 47 percent female," she added. "As far as age, I don't have specifics yet, but it's across the board. It did excellently."
Rookie opens wide Mar. 29.
On the expansion front this weekend USA Films' R rated romantic comedy Monsoon Wedding added theaters in its fourth week with a still attractive ESTIMATED $0.81 million (+5%) at 98 theaters (+22 theaters; $8,210 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.2 million.
Directed by Mira Nair, it was produced by Nair and Caroline Baron.
Miramax's R rated romantic comedy Italian For Beginners added a few theaters in its ninth week with a quiet ESTIMATED $0.28 million (-21%) at 81 theaters (+2 theaters; $3,395 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.5 million.
Directed by Lone Scherfig, it stars Anders Berthelsen.
Universal's international division reported Sunday that Spy Game opened in first place in Germany to $1.3 million on 607 playdates in its first 3 days (Thurs. - Sat.).
A Beautiful Mind, which DreamWorks is releasing internationally and Universal distributed domestically, continued to perform strongly in territories throughout the world. The picture placed fourth in Germany with $765,000 on 365 playdates. Its 17-day cume there is $4.6 million.
In Austria, Spy was number one with $140,000 on 63 playdates. Mind ranked third with $76,000 on 47
Mind topped the chart in Australia for the third consecutive week, grossing $1.1 million on 220 playdates. It has 28% market share Down Under with an 11-day cume of $4.5 million.
In the U.K., Mind grossed $685,000 on 378 playdates and ranked fifth in its fourth week.
In Spain, Mind was third in its fourth week with $400,000 on 206 playdates and a 22-day cume of $5.1 million.
In Argentina, Mind is in its fourth week and is No. 3. So far this weekend, it has grossed $104k on 46 playdates, down only 10%.
In Brazil, Mind is in its fifth weekend and moved up to second place from third with $236,000 on 153 playdates, level with the previous week. Its 30-day cume is $3.2 million.
Mind was second in Mexico in its third week with $375,000 on 170 playdates and a cume of $3.2 million.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $137.15 million, up about 75.08 percent from last year when they totaled $78.34 million.
Key films for this three day weekend were up about 38.76% from the previous weekend of this year's total of $98.84 million.
Last year, Warner Bros.' opening week of Exit Wounds was first with $18.49 million at 2,830 theaters ($6,532 per theater); and Paramount's opening week of Enemy At The Gates was second with $13.81 million at 1,509 theaters ($9,152 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $32.3 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $66.1 million.