A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis
Mary Todd Lincoln: Sally Field
William Seward: David Strathairn
Robert Lincoln: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
W.N. Bilbo: James Spader
Preston Blair: Hal Holbrook
Thaddeus Stevens: Tommy Lee Jones
Robert Latham: John Hawkes
Alexander Stephens: Jackie Earle Haley
Edwin Stanton: Bruce McGill
Richard Schell: Tim Blake Nelson
John Hay: Joseph Cross
Ulysses S. Grant: Jared Harris
Fernando Wood: Lee Pace
George Pendleton: Peter McRobbie
Elizabeth Keckley: Gloria Reuben
George Yeaman: Michael Stuhlbarg
Clay Hoggins: Walton Goggins
Corporal Ira Clark: David Oyelowo
First White Soldier: Lukas Haas
Second White Soldier: Dane DeHaan
Samuel Beckwith: Adam Driver
Lydia Smith: S. Epatha Merkerson

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Tony Kushner
Based on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Production design: Rick Carter
Film editing: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams

The all-star patriotic historical pageant celebrating American democracy had long been a featured genre of Hollywood films until the disillusionments of Vietnam and Watergate put it pretty much out of favor. But during the brief resurgence of liberal optimism after the election of Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg decided to bring it out of mothballs with a film about Abraham Lincoln's struggles to pass the 13th amendment, banning slavery in the United States. He initially planned to star Liam Neeson in the title role, but when Neeson decided he was too old for the part, the choice fell on Daniel Day-Lewis, the most chameleonic of actors. Lincoln has been played on screen by actors as varied as Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, and Raymond Massey, but Day-Lewis covered himself with glory and encumbered himself with a third Oscar in the role. It is in fact a superb performance, emphasizing the humanity of the man with depictions of his marital problems, his earthy sense of humor (no previous movie Lincoln was ever heard to utter the word "shit"), and above all his willingness to play down-and-dirty politics. The bulk of the drama is in the maneuverings to get a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives to ratify the amendment, which has substantial opposition even within the president's own party, the Republicans. This means maneuvering some of the holdouts with promises of government jobs and patronage, a task that falls to a team of lobbyists led by W.N. Bilbo, played beautifully by James Spader. It also involves persuading the most volatile of abolitionists, Thaddeus Stevens, to utter compromising language on the floor of the House, in which he asserts that all men are equal before the law, but not necessarily equal "in all things," creating a fiery, funny scene for Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens. Lincoln is also forced to conceal that he is engaged in peace negotiations with the Confederates, fearing that this would lead to postponement of the vote on the amendment. Tony Kushner's screenplay is more cerebral than most, focusing on points of law and political maneuverings, which is why some reviewers and audiences were not fully enthusiastic about it. Though it was nominated for 12 Oscars, it won only two, for Day-Lewis and for production design, losing best picture to Argo (Ben Affleck) and best director to Ang Lee for Life of Pi. Both losses, I think, are inexcusable, as was Sally Field's loss as the fragile Mary Todd Lincoln to Anne Hathaway's lachrymose Fantine in Les Misérables (Tom Hooper). I suspect Lincoln will grow in esteem over the years, thanks to its many finely detailed performances, the superb re-creation of a period in its sets and costumes, and a general lack of cinematic clichés: John Williams even manages to compose a score without quoting from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "The Star-Spangled Banner," or any number of other sure-fire, heart-tugging patriotic melodies.

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