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.
Superhero origin stories have been all the rage at the multiplex this summer with Marvel Comics alone accounting for two such films Thor and X-Men: First Class both of which happily surpassed critics’ expectations. Its latest Captain America: The First Avenger – so named as to provide us a helpful link to the Avengers movie coming next year – arguably faces the trickiest task of all three seeing as how Americans have not been in the most patriotic of moods in recent years. Could a flag-waving superhero really find purchase with a moviegoing audience that increasingly looks askance at such notions?
Surprisingly yes. That Captain America succeeds – and resoundingly so – is partly due to the producers’ decision to set the film during World War II a time where patriotism is a much easier sell. (And no viewer is too jaded to not enjoy seeing Nazis eviscerated en masse.) But proper credit must be given to director Joe Johnston who has crafted a breathlessly entertaining popcorn movie that unambiguously embraces its hero’s old-fashioned sensibilities and invites us to embrace them as well.
Chris Evans (The Losers Fantastic Four) plays Steve Rogers an earnest oft-bullied ectomorph whose lone wish is to ship off to Europe and fight on the front lines. But a plethora of physical ailments have combined to render him hopelessly unfit to serve however stiff his resolve. (To pull off the withered look of “Skinny Steve ” the filmmakers pulled off a nifty trick grafting Evans’ head onto the body of another actor Leander Neely.)
Rogers’ chance arrives in the guise of a government scientist the German émigré Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci as avuncular as a German-accented man can hope to be) who witnesses the young man’s idealistic ardor and recruits him to take part in secret military experiment. After proving his mettle in training Rogers is delivered a dose of Super Serum a PED that instantly makes him bigger stronger and faster than just about any other human alive.
Which is a good thing because on the other side of the Atlantic a renegade Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving doing a tremendous Christoph Waltz impression) has happened upon his own supernatural power source and he’s used it to quietly amass a private army dubbed HYDRA that is bent on supplanting Hitler’s world-domination scheme with its own. Soon all that stands between defeat at the hands HYDRA and its arsenal of advanced weaponry is the juiced-up visage of the newly-christened Captain America.
Portraying a stalwart straight-arrow bereft of angst or ambiguity isn’t the easiest of tasks for any actor but Evans does a commendable job of bringing depth and humanity to a character that all too easily could have come across as bland and one-dimensional. Johnston seems to recognize this potentiality as he looks primarily to his supporting cast to supply the personality: Tucci and Weaving stand out as do Tommy Lee Jones and Toby Jones playing an irascible army commander and a timid HYDRA toady respectively. The film’s romantic spark comes courtesy of the principal cast’s lone female representative the excellent Haley Atwell playing Rogers’ military liaison Agent Peggy Carter.
More than anything Captain America is a triumph of tone. A former ILM technician Johnston did visual effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg’s 1981 blockbuster was a conscious touchstone for his film’s throwback feel and aesthetic. (Another less deliberate influence would be a previous Johnston film The Rocketeer.) Captain America embodies the spirit of the old serials melded with a tongue-in-cheek comic sense and punctuated by action sequences that deploy the requisite CGI fireworks with a welcome measure of restraint. The film is decidedly of its era but never feels gratuitously nostalgic. And its production design is gorgeous: Red Skull’s lair in particular is a treasure trove of retro-futurist designs all of which seem directly lifted from 1940s World’s Fair exhibits.