Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE BOOK THIEF (2013): Young Adult Film on Nazi Germany

The Book Thief probably would have received a somewhat better reception from the critics if it had been filmed forty years ago.  Still, though far from perfect it essentially accomplishes what it sets out to do – create a moving impression concerning a young girl’s struggle to be a decent person while living in Germany under Nazi rein. 

I was reluctant to see a film that was 131 minutes in length concerning a subject that few filmmakers would likely handle well.  Most such films become dreary melodramas focused on the tiny angst of the central character while forgetting that World War II is going forward.  Thankfully this does not occur here.

The central character here is played by a newcomer named Sophie Nelisse as Liesel.  Liesel is taken away from her Communist sympathizing mother and forced to be raised by two adoptive parents living in a small village in Germany.  The war is soon to begin.  The girl is apparently as spirited as her biological mother as she doesn’t fit in smoothly with her surroundings, but even her hard-hearted adoptive mother, Rosa (Emily Watson), comes to adore the girl.  Liesel’s adoptive father, Hans (Geoffrey Rush), is already particularly soft-hearted and takes to the girl right away.  Hans is the near-to-well father who would rather play an accordion than locate a job and who refuses to join the Nazi party.

As Hans owes his life to a Jewish father who saved his life during World War I, Hans in turn risks his own family’s existence by harboring the Jewish son named Max (Ben Schnetzer).  Liesel and Max hold many conversations together as Liesel learns more about the outside world.  Liesel also learns about the world through the wife of a German aristocrat who lends her books and teaches her all sorts of stories.  And while Liesel continues to grow, the world around her grows more ominous.  We see book burnings, Jews marched through the streets wearing yellow stars and individuals as old as Hans being drafted and forced to go off to war.  (Typical treatment of the Nazis in film I would agree, but much more relevant than what The Reader portrays where we could easily forget that there were any Nazi atrocities whatsoever.)

Max is forced to flee the village and we presume never to be seen again.  Hans eventually returns after being wounded, and the family hopes to live out the end of the war without more tragedy.  It’s not to be, however, as the village is bombed.  Rosa and Hans both are killed in the bombing as is Liesel’s young friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch) – a young boy with much of the same charm and gifts of Liesel.  Nevertheless, Liesel does survive to see the end of the war and to reunite with Max who miraculously survives.

The Book Thief was directed by Brian Percival and based upon a young adult novel that I’ve never read.  The film is sentimental, but so can be a reading of Oliver Twist or Silas Marner (not to mention the watching other films that have examined life under Nazi occupation such as The Sound of Music or even Casablanca).  It’s not saccharine, like the New York Times review suggested.  In fact, three particularly negative reviews of the The Book Thief written by Stephen Holden writing for the New York Times, Godfrey Cheshire sitting in for the late Roger Ebert, and James Bernardinelli are all pretty much interchangeable.  These reviewers seem to take particular glee in pointing out the film is too warm and tender to be believed.

I agree that the film would have been vastly improved if the narration by a character named Death would have been reduced to a mere thirty seconds.  It’s one of those hiccups in the film.  But picking on the film because Liesel goes from age 13 to 18 without ever seeming to grow older or that the corpses of Hans and Rosa should really have been pictured on screen bloodied and cold with limbs missing are quibbles at best.  There is real sadness when we see Max forced to flee or when we learn of Hans, Rosa and Rudy dying in the bombing.

We’ve come to expect and even applaud crassness coming out of Hollywood.  Everything in most films (both from yesterday and today) is simplistically explained away by demonstrating that there’s little difference between one human being and another and that one person is as bad as the next.  That may be why The Book Thief comes across somewhat as a dated film.  The makers of The Book Thief still believed in something besides self-involved characters who have little thought about anything but themselves. 

December 29, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK (1991): The Gullibility of Oliver Stone

It was fifty years ago today that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated.  I cannot say with one hundred percent accuracy that Lee Harvey Oswald was the gunman, but Oswald’s behavior during the relevant time period was suspicious.  For example, sending a note that he intended to “blow up” the FBI just a few weeks before Kennedy was killed or within an hour after the assassination fatally shooting a Dallas patrolman by the name of J.D. Tippit.

So we come to Oliver Stone’s 189 minute JFK – released to theatres almost 28-years after the assassination that brings us no closer to an understanding as to what happened on November 22, 1963.  I’ve heard many commentators in the past weeks speak of the Kennedy shooting as the “end of innocence” in America.  Stone obviously subscribes to such a theory seeing that he holds John F. Kennedy in such esteem.  However, Stone does the fallen president no favors with his fairy-tale depiction of what occurred.  In Stone’s mind, there would have been no Vietnam fiasco had Kennedy lived, corporations would have been kept in check and never profited from the war, and there would have been transparency concerning security agencies like the FBI and CIA.  Oliver Stone appears to believe he can speak of credibility and the search for truth while at the same time fudging the facts.
 The action in the movie revolves around New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s 1966 investigation of the assassination.  I’m not sure what Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) would have made of Stone’s film.  Seeing that Garrison was so skeptical of the Warren Commission’s report, what would he have felt about a film that theorizes that it could have been LBJ, Castro, J. Edgar Hoover, the Mob, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secret Service or any number of CIA agents directing what occurred? 
In Stone’s retelling, Garrison was a good family man whose zeal for locating the truth upsets his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) and many of his own staff.   The media members, who obviously must be in on the conspiracy, ruthlessly attack Garrison for his wasting of taxpayer money.  Some witnesses refuse to testify.  One witness dies (though not before telling Garrison about a CIA Operation nicknamed “Operation Mongoose).  Yet conversations with the mysterious man named X (Donald Sutherland) convince Garrison that he is on the right track.  It all eventually leads to the trial of Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) that takes place in 1969.
The closest we come to hearing about what happened is Garrison’s theory that there were three gunmen at Dealey Plaza, and six shots were fired instead of the three cited in the Warren report.  Though jury members allegedly believed a conspiracy occurred, they acquitted Shaw of all charges because not enough evidence existed to connect him.
While I know it was not intentional on the part of Stone, even if the courtroom scenes in JFK were accurately depicted I would have gone along with the jury in acquitting Shaw as well.  I wouldn’t have come away convinced that there was proof of a conspiracy.  Even for those that have not followed one of the most written about happenings in American history, this film does not convince.  How would Garrison or X ever have known or demonstrated all that they claim to have been true?
The film is just too long to be entertaining, but I wouldn’t be much taken with the movie in any case.  For mere movie viewing, the courtroom scene is probably the best portion of the film.  Garrison has a field day discussing the magic bullet theory (in the film), which apparently the real Jim Garrison never addressed in the actual trial.  And while Garrison keeps repeating how Kennedy’s head goes back and to the left to the jury during showings of the Zapruder film, he sort of neglects to mention that Kennedy’s head also at one point goes forward.
We have quite the impressive cast for a film that doesn’t succeed.  Besides those we have already mentioned, we have Gary Oldman as Oswald, Kevin Bacon as a male prostitute and witness, Ed Asner as an FBI agent, and Joe Pesci as  David Ferrie (the co-conspirator who dies before he can be a witness for Garrison).
John F. Kennedy exuded optimism while in the Oval Office that is sadly missed.  Some would say that optimism was the part of the innocence that was lost that day.  However, we can’t mistake the naiveté and faked earnestness of someone like Stone for the real innocence that we need. 
Kennedy presumably demonstrated toughness when facing down Khrushchev.  He likely was very shrewd in picking Lyndon Johnson to be his Vice-President – who according to Stone may have had Kennedy killed.  (Without Johnson, Kennedy may never have been President.)  He may have been timid in not further pursuing civil rights legislation – most of which only came into being when Johnson took office.  He also may have begun the escalation of America’s presence in Vietnam.  Presidents always have been and probably always will be complicated characters with a mixture of virtues and flaws.
November 22, 2013
© Robert S. Miller 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

ON THE WATERFRONT (1954): And Elia Kazan

I had always felt that the merits of On the Waterfront were overstated by the critics when they would refer to it as one of the greatest films ever.  I thought that even other movies by director Elia Kazan such as A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden or even A Face in the Crowd was better.  However, though more sentimental than these other films, watching On the Waterfront again made me think that this particular film is likely better than Kazan’s other movies upon reviewing and stands the test of time in a better fashion.
On the Waterfront is a surprisingly simple story as the film is only 108 minutes long.  Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) witnesses the killing of Joey Doyle who is rumored to be speaking to the feds about corruption in the labor union for dock workers.  Malloy’s own brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), works for the mob boss, Johnny Favor (Lee J. Cobb).  Another dockworker, Kayo Dugan (Pat Henning), also speaks to the feds about dock conditions and also gets killed.
Terry’s conscience is sore.  To complicate matters, Terry also falls in love with the sister of the Joey Doyle, Edie (Eva Marie Saint).  Edie has also been speaking to Father Barry (Karl Malden) and together they both try to convince Terry that he should testify as to what happened.  Charlie tries to convince Terry in the famous taxicab scene that he needs to stay away from Edie and to not testify against Johnny.  However, instead of convincing Terry to not testify he hints that Terry’s life in trouble.  This results in Charlie being killed.  Though Terry at first wants to murder Johnny, Father Barry convinces Terry to testify.  Terry’s testimony eventually leads to Johnny Favor losing his power with the union.  Terry walks onto the docks bloodied up by Johnny’s goons, but they are unable to stop him from going to work.
The movie owes its reputation greatly to the acting of Brando.   The film may have been too syrupy with anyone else in the lead.  Malden, like in so many other films he is in, comes across as a tad bit self-righteous.  Eva Marie Saint is good as the love interest as she perfectly portrays innocence, but this is a coming of age film for men.  Brando, Lee J. Cobb and Rod Steiger play the important roles in the film and play their macho roles wonderfully.  (It’s also a film with three former heavyweights, Tony Galento, Abe Simon and Tami Mauriello, all who were knocked out by Joe Louis.) We can all talk about the score or the film lighting for this movie.  However, it’s the story and the acting of Brando that give it significance.
My ambivalence to this film probably always will go back to it being directed by Kazan.  Kazan and the screenwriter for On the Waterfront, Budd Schulberg, testified for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and both named names.  The two former Communists turned against other in Hollywood.  Kazan gave at least eight names to the HUAC.
I watched a documentary the other night about Kazan and there were all sorts of excuses for why Kazan took the actions that he did.  One actress who had starred in East of Eden stated it was not her place to judge.  Though most can probably appreciate her sentiment, I’m guessing those that were named had a slightly different take.
On the Waterfront is sometimes referred to as Kazan’s response to his critics who claimed he should never have testified.  If this is true it does seem like a rather odd defense.  In On the Waterfront the little guys’ livelihoods were being threatened with extinction if they testified rather than conformed.  In the HUAC hearings, the little guys were being testified against and having their careers ruined just for being named.  Those making up the HUAC and the mob bosses were not so very different.
The weakest segment of On the Waterfront is towards the end where we have the farcical fight scene between Terry and Johnny Favors.  In almost all of Kazan’s films he does not know how to finish the movie up well.  Still, On the Waterfront holds up even with this ending perhaps due to the simplicity of the story.  The scenes between Brando and Eva Marie Saint show real tenderness.  And there’s grittiness that, along with the acting of Brando, will make the movie remembered.  Perhaps the whole film doesn’t quite fit together because Kazan was trying in the end to put his thumb on the scales.

© Robert S. Miller 2013

Saturday, July 27, 2013

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975): Filming of Great Kipling Story

The Man Who Would Be King is one of those few film renderings of a great short story that is also worth seeing upon the screen.  The 129 minute movie succeeds because of the story, the acting of Michael Caine as Peachey Carnehan and Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, and the direction of John Huston.  It is one of the best adventure movies ever filmed.  Carnehan and Dravot are scoundrels, but one understands that they lived more deeply than we ever will.  At the same time the film contains a warning: we as a people cannot improve upon the lives of others by dictating how others should live.
Former English soldiers Carnehan and Dravot have many get-rich schemes.  They are pickpockets, blackmailers, gun-runners and devout Free Masons.  They swindle their ways through life and are willing to take great risks in the improving of their fortune.  They decide to head to a country called Kafiristan to make themselves kings.  Through brashness and a series of larks they come very close to succeeding.  They cross the Khyber Pass, ford a dangerous river and steal mules from Afghan bandits.  They then wander through the Hindu Kush and arrive in Kafiristan to an area where no white man had gone since the time of Alexander the Great.  An arrow stopped by Dravot’s bandolier convinces the natives that the two white men have tumbled from the heavens.  That Dravot is wearing a Masonic symbol introduced to the people by Alexander the Great convinces them further that Dravot is the son of Sikander (Alexander the Great) – in other words a god.
Through their adventures they meet up with Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), a transplanted Indian who had survived an avalanche that killed an English party, and he becomes Carnehan and Dravot’s cohort and translator.  We also meet Kafiristan native, Roxanne (Shakira Caine – Michael Caine’s real-life wife), who Dravot becomes smitten with (despite his agreement with Carnehan that they would keep away from the temptations of women).  While Carnehan is still intent on robbing Kafiristan of its plunder and then returning to the west, Dravot begins suffering from delusions that he is a god and that his destiny is to remain the ruler of Kafiristan. 
Two things happen to thwart their plans: the high priest of Kafiristan, Kafu Selim (Karroom Ben Bouih) believes Dravot could be a god, but remains suspicious.  Also, because of native superstition, Roxanne is afraid to marry Dravot out of fear she will go up in flames on their wedding night.  She bites Dravot while they are about to marry, Dravot bleeds, the high priest proclaims that gods don’t bleed, and Dravot is forced to cross a rope bridge that is then cut and plunges to his death.   Carnehan in turn in crucified on a tree, but he survives to return to India to tell his story to Kipling (Christopher Plummer).
The Man Who Would Be King was written in 1886, but its lesson is still not heard.  Kipling was torn for the love of the English soldier, his on and off belief that the English were in some manner superior, and his deeper conviction (that does manifest itself in his best work like the story The Man Who Would Be King) that western man with its politics, religion, education and culture had become far too sure of itself to leave other people alone. 
This film is not escapism.  There are many moving, funny and powerful scenes in this film.  We come to admire Carnehan and Dravot for their audacity, but we all along know that they would also meet their doom.   The film imparts a sense of mystery in that it tells us we don’t always understand what drives on other men.  I watch the film once or maybe twice a year because I cannot convince myself that movies like The Lone Ranger or all the endless sequels are really the best we can do in film.  Compared to what Hollywood is tossing out as a message, the antics of Carnehan and Dravot are refreshing.

July 27, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013

Sunday, March 31, 2013


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a movie directed by Milos Forman, a director whose movies have often been overrated, mediocre and dull, and based upon a novel written by Ken Kesey, whose novel Sometimes a Great Notion and memoir Demon Box I felt were better books.  Yet the movie actually improves upon the novel (however much Kesey may have disagreed), and we are presented with perhaps the last true anti-establishment film to come out of Hollywood since it was released.
Both Forman and Kesey benefitted from the casting for this movie.  The actors and actresses in this movie won Forman Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, and it brought Kesey the recognition that he had not received since his jail stint brought on for a number of drug-related charges and his attempt to flee the country.   Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy, Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, Will Sampson as Chief Bromden, Sydney Lassick and Cheswick, William Redfield and Harding Christopher Lloyd and Taber, and (especially) Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit create possibly the best assembly of characters ever brought together in a single film.  These actors turn what sometimes seemed like comic book characters in the book to alive, vital and sometimes spiteful and/or suffering people.  And Louise Fletcher is frightening as the wound-too-tight and controlling head nurse in the psychiatric ward. 
The plot for this 134 minute film is somewhat simple.  McMurphy, trying to get out of doing hard time in prison, has himself checked into the ward.  Still, while at the ward he’s so stupefied by the willingness to be controlled by Nurse Ratched that he tries to shake things up.  A number of episodes occur where McMurphy and Nurse Ratched come into conflict, and with each incident the stakes are raised.
The conflict between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched finally comes to a head over Billy Bibbit.  McMurphy provides Billy with the opportunity to spend his first and only night with a woman, Nurse Ratched discovers what has occurred and threatens to reveal what Billy has done to Billy’s mother, and Billy then commits suicide.  McMurphy, knowing that what Nurse Ratched did was cold blooded murder, attempts to strangle her right there on the institution’s floor.
Since Nurse Ratched and the staff never succeed in breaking McMurphy through the use of behavioral therapy, drugs and electroshock treatments, they resort to having him lobotomized.  The physically powerful Chief, unable to stomach seeing McMurphy is this condition, smothers McMurphy with a pillow and makes his own break from the asylum.
The film does have its problems.  The film is also not altogether original.  The film heavily borrows from Cool Hand Luke, a movie that came out close to ten years earlier and remains to me more convincing.  Luke strives to be free while McMurphy spends much more time playing games.
Also, the party scene that ultimately resulted in Billy sleeping with a woman went on for too long, and the consequences were a bit too easy to see coming.  During this entire scene, McMurphy either comes across as naïve or reckless concerning the life of Billy, a troubled youth that McMurphy nevertheless seems to care about.
The film still manages to succeed because we are confronted with characters that are real and of all shapes and sizes.  Those with legitimate gripes do not usually have six figure incomes or Ivy League educations, and the abuse that they take often has consequences on the psyche.  Just as in all the good roles that Nicholson has played, which are becoming increasingly rare, his character in this film is not always easy to deal with.  This is not a pretty movie as stories about real rebellion are messy, raucously funny and raw. 
Look at the lists of Academy Award Best Picture Winners and see how many truly hit us in the stomach.  In eighty-five years of handing out these awards, only a small portion of the winners give us anything but multi-million dollar budgets with canned scripts and cardboard characters splashed all over the billboards.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not one of those films. 
March 31, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012): The Search for bin Laden

There recently was another suicide bombing in the world in Pakistan that killed close to ninety people and wounded two-hundred more.  Pakistan, a country on the brink of being a third world nation that possesses nuclear weapons, is also where Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011 by United States Special Forces.
Zero Dark Thirty leads us through events that led to the killing of bin Laden - from September 11, 2001 until just after the raid took place.  We hear the 911 calls made during and after the World Trade Centers are attacked.  Next we see prolonged scenes of interrogation including the torture of a combatant named Ammar (Reda Kateb).  Then we see the work of various operatives sifting through information revealed during the interrogations. 
One tip identifies a possible courier for bin Laden, and this eventually results in identifying the compound that bin Laden is believed located.  The major players then sit at the table with CIA Director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), the decision is made to raid the compound, and we then have a half hour of filming showing the raid itself.
Just as in The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates here she is adept at characterization.  At the center of the film is an operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain).  Maya is not a happy person, has no friends, and has little life outside of her duties to infiltrate al Qaeda networks.  At first queasy about duties that include sitting in on the interrogations where water boarding and enhanced interrogation techniques (torture) are used, she nevertheless becomes good at her job.  She even directs the torture in one or two scenes.  Despite opposition of certain supervisors (predictable in every movie thriller), she convinces the powers that be that a raid needs to be conducted on the compound.
Maya must feel insecure and isolated as the result of taking on such a task.  Attempts are made on her life.  Her attempt at friendship to a fellow agent, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), is brought to a halt when the later is killed by a suicide bomber.  She is personally closest to Dan (Jason Clarke), an agent she first meets while he is interrogating a prisoner through water-boarding.  Maya is smart but, as Panetta remarks, smartness is not key.  Maya is more a useful tool than a person to be admired.  And Maya’s tears at the end of the film were probably not tears of joy.
Zero Dark Thirty rightly should be considered the most controversial film in years, and it needs to make us feel uncomfortable.  It’s a film praised and criticized by both the right and the left for usually the wrong reasons.  Maya is not a feminist film hero like certain critics pretend her to be.  And despite it ending with the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the film is a sober acknowledgment of that fact rather than a feeling of victory.
I hope Americans are not so self-effacing that a movie about such a killing offends them.  No American with a balanced perspective should shed tears over the death of bin Laden.  Osama bin Laden and the Taliban used the plight of suffering people to gain a foothold on power and any U.S. President, regardless of party affiliation, would have sent the troops in if they had known where bin Laden was located.  The number one world power in the nation was (if anything) embarrassed that it took as long as it did.
The controversy in this film lies elsewhere.  Politicians like Senator Dianne Feinstein seem offended at any suggestion that information gleaned from tortures led to the killing of bin Laden.  The United States Senate even released a committee report stating that torture that may or may not have taken place never led to information used to locate bin Laden.  Others more politically to the right feel the depictions of torture were either vastly overstated (and this criticism is probably just) or never conducted (a criticism that is likely naïve).
Yet whatever motivations Bigelow had in making this film, she seemed to believe that torture played a role in locating Osama bin Laden.   In Zero Dark Thirty: (1) there is a half hour of movie time portraying torture; (2) Maya is shown obsessing over these interrogations; (3) torturers, including Dan, end up sitting at the same table with Panetta when decisions to raid the compound are made; and (4) politicians referenced throughout the film play lip service as to how torture never occurred.  But believing the torture did play a role doesn’t mean Bigelow condoned the torture.  This her critics have very wrong.  There is no outpouring of self-congratulations when each portion of the mystery is revealed, any celebration after the killing is subdued, and the film is refreshingly short on false displays of piety.
Of today’s best known movie directors, Bigelow comes closest to remaining true to the narrative she is telling.  The film gets to be too much of a one woman show in search for bin Laden, but that search at least never becomes glorified. For a 157 minute film in Zero Dark Thirty, the film never loses intensity.  Nor does the film ever become sentimental or fail to take its story seriously. 
Bigelow could not have pleased her critics, and that’s mostly to her credit.
February 20, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013

Sunday, January 20, 2013

LINCOLN (2012): With Malice Toward None

Abraham Lincoln is probably the most mythical character in American History.  When I was a child, I read about how he carried a hot potato in his hand in the morning while walking to school to keep warm, how as a merchant he walked six miles to return the ten cents he overcharged a customer, how as a lawyer he was sanctioned five dollars for telling a joke only to have the judge return the money when he realized how funny the joke was, and how as President he never turned a visitor away, no matter who the person may have been, that came to see him.  The myths are still in play in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Lincoln, it’s just that the myths are somewhat more sophisticated and more aimed at a movie audience.
Still, just as the man himself, Lincoln as a movie is something special.  There’s little cynicism in the film, the portrait of Lincoln is thorough and well-rounded, and Daniel Day Lewis is exceptional in the role.  Perhaps most surprisingly is that fact that Lincoln is a relatively humble little film (for being 150 minutes long).  Rather than turn this into an epic film about the entire Civil War, Spielberg focuses specifically in on the passage of the 13th Amendment – an important historical event, no doubt, but hardly the type of theme that is going to draw in large crowds.
In the movie, while ignoring the advice of his cabinet and turning towards the assistance of some questionable but able lobbyists led by W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Lincoln is able to get enough votes in Congress to have the 13th Amendment enacted.  Lincoln especially exasperates his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), who admires but can never quite figure out the genius of Lincoln.  Because while others were more concerned with the ending of the war, Lincoln desired the passing of the 13th Amendment to have something in writing as to why the Civil War had been fought and continuing on for four years.
The relationship that Lincoln had with his family including his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and his youngest and mischievous son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), is well done melodrama that never becomes too maudlin.  Sally Field was surprisingly sympathetic as the wife that too often has been portrayed as a neurotic mad woman.  And though the Lincoln as played by Daniel Day Lewis never departs too much from the persona created by Carl Sandburg as the folksy and wisdom loving leader, the actor is compellingly able to put on display the mind, emotions and aspirations of the great President.
The wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the screen involving all other characters besides Lincoln would be all right in an average film, but it somewhat distracts the viewer here.  The Congressional banter that revolves around the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones mostly comes across as bad farce.  The necessity for passing the 13th Amendment coupled (and sometimes opposed) with the strong desire of a nation to end the war never get the attention that such themes deserve - unless the character of Lincoln is actually shown on the screen.  Besides the acting of Daniel Day Lewis, I’m guessing the success of Lincoln’s dialogue in the film is mostly due to the screenplay by Tony Kushner.  Kushner, an avowed homosexual, had his own personal reasons for participating in this film.
Now I’ve never been a great Spielberg admirer.  His talent has always been in making a film look great rather than telling a story that truly is great.  Spielberg as a storyteller, even in a movie as important as Schindler’s List, has always played it safe.  The only truly controversial movie he ever made was Munich, and in that movie he failed to convince.  Lincoln also plays it safe, but it’s a moving film that at least portrays one great man convincingly.  If this is one more side to the myth of the Great Emancipator (which it probably is), at least it’s a believable myth.
Lincoln is a formula movie with the good guys and bad guys thoroughly entrenched, but it’s still the best formula movie that has come out in years.  With a movie like Argo winning the Golden Globes Award as Best Picture and Silver Linings Playbook also nominated for an Oscar, it appears that we have another year of mostly average movies receiving all the accolades.  Perhaps only Zero Dark Thirty would be an unconventional choice for best picture.  Still, especially considering the alternatives, I would applaud the choice of Lincoln if it was to win the best picture award at the Academy Awards.  Maybe at some point the Oscar ceremony could even gain the credibility that it hardly ever has deserved.
January 20, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013