Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 18, 2013

2012 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Two

Lincoln: Director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and actor Daniel Day-Lewis head up an impressive team for this film on Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. At the center onscreen is Day-Lewis, whose resemblance to Lincoln (with the help of some makeup) becomes uncanny. It's one of his best performances, and he captures the warmth, intelligence, humor, and most of all, the dueling weariness and spirit in the man. Gaze at him, and you see an old soul, eyes that have seen perhaps too much, and a bemused smile about that odd creature, humanity. Day-Lewis pitches his voice high, to match historical accounts of Lincoln's speaking voice. His Lincoln is at turns enigmatic, cornball, an elevated being, and bursting with human frailties. The film wouldn't work nearly as well without a performance of this caliber. The movie's mostly talking heads and legislative maneuvering, and while political and historical junkies may find it fascinating, it's not necessarily an easy sell for a general audience. At the start of the film, the Civil War is drawing to a close, the South will try to keep slavery as a condition of surrender, and many in Congress will acquiesce to halt the war. However, the many lame duck members of Congress present an opportunity, because Lincoln and his allies can approach the softer supporters of slavery and appeal to their consciences – or just bribe them. (If progress is to made, appealing to the better angels of everyone's nature will only get them so far, and sleazier backroom deals will have to do the rest.)

Day-Lewis makes all this captivating, and he's got plenty of help. Spielberg being Spielberg, he can absolutely stack the deck with acting talent, even in small roles. Sally Field is memorable as the strong-willed, occasionally neurotic Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is their son Robert, who chafes at not being allowed to see military action. (One of the better scenes involves Lincoln losing his temper with him.) David Strathairn is Lincoln's former chief rival and Secretary of State, William Seward, who's grown to respect the man but is sometimes still baffled by him. The same goes for Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), Lincoln's harried Secretary of War. James Spader (typecast) as William Bilbo and John Hawkes as Robert Latham are tasked with the subtle and not-so-subtle bribes, which provide some humor and puncture a little sentimentality. Jackie Earle Haley is memorable as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, politically doomed but still potentially dangerous. Hal Habrook makes a welcome appearance, as does S. Epatha Merkerson in a small but crucial role. (About a dozen other actors of note fill out the ranks.) Finally, there's Tommy Lee Jones as fiery orator and stalwart abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, one of the "Radical Republicans" bent on ending slavery. It's one of Jones' best performances, and Stevens is faced with one of the greater dilemmas in the film – should he effectively disown his true beliefs in public on the congressional floor to win passage of the 13th Amendment – or speak his conscience and potentially sink a cause he's fought most of his life for? Spielberg wisely chooses to make this a moment of great tension, and Jones sells this struggle of conscience beautifully.

My one big complaint was, where's Frederick Douglass? The abolitionists, including many former slaves, are not well represented in the film apart from Stevens, and I wanted at least a cameo for Douglass. (It turns out that an earlier script by John Logan focused on Lincoln and his relationship with Douglass, then Paul Webb wrote more of a full biopic, then Tony Kushner wrote what eventually became the shooting script, centered on the 13th Amendment.) Spielberg was wise not to try to cover all of Lincoln's life, but the most worthy criticisms of Lincoln as history relate to sidelining the abolitionists. (More below. Criticism over the false depiction of Connecticut politicians voting to preserve slavery – for a more dramatic voting scene – are completely valid, but the demands that Spielberg re-film and recut the scene are absolutely ridiculous. It's simply not practical, and would set a horrible precedent. These events took place in 1864, and there are other inaccuracies in the film besides; use it as a teaching moment to launch a classroom discussion instead.)

All that said, I believe (as some historians have argued) that the film will encourage viewers to read more about Lincoln, the abolitionists and the Civil War, and it will do more good than harm on that front. Meanwhile, its merits as a film are considerable. It does an excellent job exploring both the mystique and humanity of one of America's most famous figures, and delves into the nature of political progress far more seriously than most pop culture. That's no easy feat; the team here just makes it look easy. (At the end, it's hard not to wonder about Lincoln the man, "What if?") Lincoln is worth seeing for Day-Lewis' remarkable performance alone, but I think this film will grow in esteem over the years. (On the technical front, DP Janusz Kaminski overdoes the shadowy eye sockets for my tastes, but generally speaking, this is a very handsomely put-together production, as one would expect from Team Spielberg. I think it's his best film since his 2002 entries, Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report.)

(Here's Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Doris Kearns Goodwin and sound designer Ben Burtt on NPR. Here's Tony Kushner on Fresh Air and Janusz Kaminski on The Treatment. Historians Ronald White and Corey Robin weigh in on its accuracy and the choices it makes. Finally, I'd recommend the three-hour PBS series The Abolitionists for some of the crucial history the film does not cover, including much more on Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.)

Silver Linings Playbook: Writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter) sure has a knack for coaxing out great performances from his actors, and this is an excellent romantic comedy-drama that hits all the notes it has to. Adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick, the film centers on Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), a youngish former high school teacher who's bipolar. He's been in a psychiatric hospital because when he discovered his wife having an affair, he severely beat her lover. She's taken out a restraining order, but he's still in love with her, and is working hard to put his life together to win her back. He's lost a fair amount of weight and is determined to lose more (he jogs around his Philly neighborhood with a trashbag on to increase sweating), but he's not thrilled about taking his meds, which can make his thinking foggy. His well-intentioned but overwhelmed mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) springs him early from the hospital (the court's approval is involved) and Pat's OCD, Philadelphia-Eagles-worshipping father Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) isn't entirely sold on it. Pat Sr. tries to connect with his son, but struggles, especially when Pat Jr. backslides, and Pat Sr. also feels guilty about possibly screwing up his parenting in the past. (It's DeNiro's best serious performance in a while, understated, nuanced, phenomenally grounded, and authentic.) Also trying to keep Pat on the straight and narrow is his psychiatrist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) and one of his best friends, Ronnie (John Ortiz). Ronnie seems to be doing great, but he confides to Pat that he's very distressed, mostly because he's trying to please his somewhat uptight wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), who doesn't care much for Pat, but does make an effort. Into Pat's life comes Veronica's sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), widow of his high school classmate Tommy (who was a cop). She's depressed and hates putting on a show, too, and the two instantly bond by trading war stories about the drugs they've been prescribed. Tiffany makes a strong pass, but Pat declines because he's still in love with his wife, and she feels rebuffed. (He's also a bit delusional about his chances.) Things really pick up when Tiffany offers to smuggle a letter to Pat's wife Nikki (illegal, and potentially dangerous)… if Pat will partner with her for a dance contest.

There are many things to like about this film, but the key is the developing relationship between Pat and Tiffany. It feels real, it's funny, they're both more than a bit neurotic (he's more peppy and she's more dour), but they can be kind to each other. (Tiffany rightly pegs that Pat thinks she's more damaged than him, though.) A single scene can deliver laughs but also poignancy. (One of the cooler scenes involves Tiffany surreptitiously hearing Pat sticking up for her; he's definitely got his issues, but on one level, he respects her and "gets her" much better than some of the other people in her life, no matter how well-intentioned.) All of the family scenes also have that ring of truth, with both of Pat's parents as loving as they are helpless, and Pat Sr. definitely a model of his generation when it comes to repression. (A scene where Tiffany faces down Pat Sr. is fantastic. Chris Tucker is also good in a small but important role as a charming pal of Pat's from the hospital.) Russell and the actors understand mental illness (Russell's son is bipolar and OCD), and this isn't a disease-of-the-week tearjerker or sensationalized treatment of the subject. Mental illness is an important theme, and while it also drives a lot of the comedy, its portrayal isn't schticky or cheap here, nor is it the sole definer of these characters. I laughed out loud frequently during this film, and this is the comedy of recognition and compassion, not derision and distance. This is the best work Bradley Cooper's done, displaying both manic energy and depth, all grounded in a real character. Lawrence alternately shows a fierceness and vulnerability that are both affecting. (She definitely gets that reject-them-before-you-can-be-rejected dynamic, and it's arresting when we catch some tiny glimpse of desperation through the sarcastic mask.) I honestly cared about these characters, the film sells some potentially tough character developments, it earns its good will, and the two climatic scenes are beautifully done.

(Here's David O. Russell on The Treatment. Here's Bradley Cooper on Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Here's Jacki Weaver on NPR.)

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