Thursday, November 29, 2012

Justice for All

I know I might upset a lot of Academy Award voters with this statement, but here goes: I'm not that big a fan of Steven Spielberg.

Sure, his early stuff - Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - are classics, and everybody who has seen his early thriller The Duel tells me that it's a movie I need to watch. But as good as Jurassic Park was, was it REALLY one of the best the year it was released? Are E.T. and Schindler's List REALLY among the best movies of all time? I say no. I believe Spielberg is one of the industry's more overrated directors, one with a certain amount of talent and an eye for the cinematic but lacking a consistent storytelling ability. Look at last year as an example; War Horse was a bloated, over-hyped mess that would have been shunned had anybody else been in the director's chair. Instead, it was nominated for Best Picture over more deserving fare such as Drive, Bridesmaids and even David Fincher's solid adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Spielberg's name can still move mountains, even if his movies more often move me to boredom. It's why I don't look forward to his products, even when they are Lincoln and feature the inimitable talents of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Ah, the days of smaller cabinets...
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography Team of Rivals, Lincoln focuses on one of the most crucial battles for our sixteenth US President, one that had (almost) nothing to do with the Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg has ended, and the disastrous Civil War is coming soon to a close. Lincoln (Day-Lewis) has just secured reelection, and makes it his priority to add an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery. With public support at an all time high, now is the time to get the amendment ratified by Congress. But even with all his strength, he doesn't have the majority vote necessary to guarantee victory. And so Lincoln and his allies must convince his Democrat rivals that approving this measure is more important than petty political machinations.

As Jessica Rabbit's evil clone would say: "A Man!"
First and foremost, let's get the obvious statement out of the way: Daniel Day-Lewis is simply astounding. an almost guaranteed lock for this year's Best Actor categories, Day-Lewis does far more than simply emulate the recorded character of arguably our most revered President. As the stovepipe hat-wearing politician, the actor embodies Lincoln's persona, from his easy command of an audience to his sensitive compassion to his ability to speak on any given subject. That he does this convincingly comes as no true surprise; that it seems to arrive so easily is what makes Day-Lewis the outstanding performer he is. There isn't one moment in which he is on the screen that he does not demand your attention, respect and awe, and he also appears to garner those same responses from his erstwhile costars.

It was Mr. Booth, in the Theater, with the Revolver. I win!
But he doesn't have to carry the whole movie on his own back, as Day-Lewis is surrounded by some of the best actors Spielberg could cobble together. You can't fire a musket without hitting any of a number of talented character players, from David Oyelowo to Walton Goggins to Jared Harris to Lee Pace to the amazing Michael Stuhlbarg, and those are just the small cameo roles. Tommy Lee Jones, who had been regressing in the quality his performances the past few years, leaps back to relevance with his portrayal of Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. His is an Oscar-worthy performance, a far cry from more Men in Black sequels. More strong performances come from David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and it was obvious a lot of research went into making their relatively obscure characters as true to life as possible. Watchmen's Jackie Earle Haley manages to steal a few moments (opposite Day-Lewis, surprisingly) when he is allowed on screen, putting a much-appreciated face to the Confederate government. And some of my favorite moments in Lincoln involved the banter between John Hawkes and James Spader, playing Republican lobbyists tasked with garnering Democratic support for the amendment. Spader especially is one of the film's best additions. Certainly he's the most entertaining, and while his witty repartee won't likely be enough for Oscar considerations, I'm surprised he's not getting mentions in that regard.

No Oscar for you!
Of course, no Spielberg film is without significant drawbacks. Like most of his work, the director tends to spell everything out in no uncertain terms. Subtlety isn't his specialty, and he's not above using blatant humor, cliched situations and imagery, and telling rather than showing to get his point across. It's not as bad here as it was in War Horse, and the director is helped by his performers in not allowing these weaknesses to get too out of hand. One actor that doesn't really help him however is Sally Field, who plays Lincoln's mentally fragile wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Spielberg has said that he only saw Field in the role, and that's likely what blinded him to the fact that her performance was typical of what we expect from the character. I frankly wasn't impressed; I've seen good Fields roles over the years, and this wasn't one of them. One scene in particular between Lincoln and his wife didn't quite fit, thanks to a decidedly theatrical take that I'm not entirely sure wasn't intentional. And Spielberg has issues with keeping all of his details straightforward. At times he uses subtitles to effectively introduce new characters or locations that we had only heard of before; at others he leaves us to our devices, confused as to the latest turn of events.

My favorite performer of the whole show.
Besides Day-Lewis and the mostly-amazing cast, what I liked most about Lincoln was the history behind it. For many audience members, this is the first we've heard of many of the details leading up to the ratification of the thirteenth constitutional amendment. The reasons behind each character's actions are closely scrutinized, and Spielberg actually does a good job of showing us both how things have changed in the last 150 years and how much they've remained the same, from the gullibility of the public to the divisiveness of Congress. Again, at times he makes things a bit TOO clear cut (especially with politicians perpetually shouting "What's next: black voters? WOMEN voters?" Yeah, we get it), but this is still likely the most authentic look at Lincoln's political career you're going to see on the big screen. The director's ability to capture a scene on camera is one of his greatest strengths, and likely the main reason he has maintained his foothold atop the Hollywood hierarchy after all this time.

I wonder if he has "Old Man" written on his business cards?
Despite my early reservations, Lincoln is a fine film, and one of the better historical dramas of the past decade. It's not perfect, and Spielberg's inability to get over his own hype slightly sabotages any chances of a Best Picture win. But Daniel Day-Lewis is more of a sure thing than anything else in theaters right now or at any time this year. This is a film that - warts and all - is worth watching for his performance alone. If you want to see a master at work - and really, who doesnt'? - then you simply must give Lincoln a shot. It's easily Spielberg's best film in two decades, and is a much better than most of his critics will ever admit.


briankirker said...

War Horse was great and you know it.

THE Real Estate Analyst!!! said...

I agree with Mr Anderson on three points, (1) Spielberg is grossly overrated; (2) Daniel Day-Lewis is the best male actor of the last 20 years (For me starting with his take on Christy Brown in "My Left Foot"); (3) and "War Horse" was dreck.

Richard J. Marcej said...

I agree that Daniel Day Lewis is the greatest actor working today. No argument.
I also believed he'd be a sure fire winner for Best Actor this year, I still do.
After watching fellow "Lincoln" actor John Hawkes performance in "The Sessions" I wouldn't
be surprised if he pulls an upset for Best Actor. He was that good.

Mr. Anderson said...

I admit I've yet to see The Sessions, and I've got to get around to seeing it one of these days, as Hawkes will almost certainly be nominated for the role. That the film itself looks pretty good is no small thing either.

Richard J. Marcej said...

I enjoyed "The Sessions" more than I thought that I would. Also didn't expect to see so much nudity from Helen Hunt. (not that I'm complaining... :b )
What blew me away the most from Hawkes is work is I'd forgotten that he was starring in it and after I saw it , and read his name on the credits I did one of those "d'oh" reactions. He really loses himself in the part.

Of course, so does DDL as Lincoln. I can't see anyone being able to challenge each man's performance this year.

Mr. Anderson said...

There haven't been many really great movies this year (in my opinion), but the Best Actor category might be very crowded this year. Besides Day-Lewis and (most likely) Hawkes, there was Denzel Washington up to his usual excellence in 'Flight' and Anthony Hopkins' great work in 'Hitchcock', which I've just seen and will review soon. I still think Day-Lewis will walk away with the award but any of them could pull an upset.