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The goal of any historical film is to try and derive excitement and suspense enough that you’re interested for the entire runtime–even if it is someone as revered and learned and relearned as Honest Abe.
With the amount that people know of him, you’d think it would have been much more difficult to teach and inform on the subject, but Daniel Day-Lewis brings such deeply felt humanity to a role that he allows to engluf him so completely that, while the pace never quite picks up, you are enraptured watching the living visage of one of the greatest Presidents ever, one who’s probably in your pocket right now.
More than anything, this film is a courtroom drama, studying the effects of the bloodiest war in US history on the men who were on borrowed time to get the 13th Amendment passed during a lame duck session in Congress.
To that end, Lincoln also achieved another tenet of historical films: Teach me Something. I had no idea that Abe essentially bribed voted-out Democratic members of Congress with positions in the government for their vote to enact the 13th amendment.
Or that politics hasn’t seemed to change much in the past 160 years or so: Tommy Lee Jones’s Congressman Stevens spends most of the film insulting his fellow congressmen (nincompoops!) across the aisle in the Democratic party because they don’t believe in race equality; bribes and deals are cut to get things done; and that the only time stuff gets done is during Lame Duck sessions when Honey Badger Congressmen don’t give a shit.
Beyond that, it’s hard to say much–Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is stellar; Tony Kushner’s screenplay brought into the third dimension two and a half hours of speeches and stories; and John Williams’s score wasn’t overpowering, but subtle in its emotional direction–beyond that, though, there’s really not much than can be said about the Best Picture Winner of 2012 (Yes, that’s my prediction, even though I’d obviously prefer the Master) except…
Some Nitpicky Shit that nobody else may care about (but I do!)
Up until now, Steven Spielberg has had me worried–it’s not that he’s slipped at all as a filmmaker, but that I just haven’t enjoyed the last two films of his that I saw. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a two hour clusterfuck, and War Horse had me so distracted with its lighting choices that I never could get into the film.
Those lighting choices are here, too: Between War Horse and this film, it seems as if he’s started to move toward pointing harsh white lights on all his actors at all times in spite of the coloring of the rest of the scene.
In War Horse, it was fairly acceptable as it seemed like a fitting lighting design for a film that originally came from a stage play. But, here, it’s just distracting at first, and I had to continue to consider its thematic uses because, against such a ridiculously rich period piece, it simply looked awful at points.
But then I decided that it was more to give the actors with any sort of humanity an almost angelic glow, as if highlighting those who were fighting the good fight, and those who were fighting against it. I came to this conclusion mostly because Jackie Earl Haley’s turn as the Confederate VP is never shone in such a light, but in other scenes, each and every person in the background has a white spotlight shown on their faces.
It’s weird, unnatural, and distracting, but it definitely helped to accentuate the dichotomous nature of humanity because, most of the time, the light is often from only one direction, allowing shadows to fall across the faces of the actors in a way that hints at their own uncertainty at whether or not any of this will work.
So it has its thematic purposes, both here and in War Horse, but I simply can’t rectify within myself the need to use such a jolting strategy in an otherwise gorgeous film.
And I have an excuse to post this:
There’s another one, but I can’t effing find it unfortunately.
As I’ve stated before, every film-maker has to make their war film (I mentioned it in my review of the Adventures of Baron [von] Munchausen).
This would be Scorsese’s war film.
Sure, he’s made movies about mafia wars and taxi-drivers before, but never have their been battle scenes as setup here.
The movie starts with a heavy piece of battle that is to be the reason behind Leonardo DiCaprio’s revenge later in the film—his father is killed by Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Bill the Butcher.
Yet, the more I reflect on their performances as the two leads, the more I feel a disdain rising towards this film.
Don’t get me wrong, Day-Lewis and DiCaprio turn in fine performances—the former being better than latter almost obviously—but there were just so many things within the film that didn’t jive with me.
For example, the beginning battle scene that I mentioned: why the hell was there a trip-hop soundtrack behind it? What the fuck was Howard Shore or Scorsese thinking when they agreed to do that? Were they listening to too much Portishead? It was so out of context and off-kilter to the scene that, within the first half-hour I was already turned off by the film.
Just to get my gripes with Howard Shore’s scoring over with, there is a running theme throughout this film that sounds eerily similar to Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War.” Since this composition’s inception into pop-culture, its driving beats and waxing and waning themes have been mimicked throughout film and television (another fine example is during Apocalypse Now, there scene where they travel up the river and it sounds like “Mars,” but with a tripped-out synthesizer instead of a driving low-end brass and string sound). But in this film, it just added to my hate for the score.
And then added to my dislike of the film.
Halfway through, I stopped giving a goddam about Day-Lewis’ racism and started to ponder why DiCaprio put up with it for so long. What was he waiting for? Christmas?
Though it became obvious that he got on his good side just to make an attempt at killing him, I thought it wouldn’t have been a smart move for him to make. If you take out the leader of your slum, without a coup to back you up, who then takes over but his second-hand man with all the same policies and procedures?
That’s just basic military strategy: if you’re going to assassinate or attempt to overthrow a leader, have a solid coup d’tat and maybe a manifesto to go with the public assassination.
Instead, he just brashly throws a knife at him. And then gets his gang together.
There also seemed to be no point in having the love story in the film. Since DiCaprio obviously cares more about revenge than about love, it was almost as if it was tossed in there to show that, “Sure, he cares a whole shitload about revenge, but he also has a soft spot for good, late 19th century, pussy.” Cameron Diaz really brought the whole film down because, when you put two great male leads like that in a head-to-head battle for control down the stretch of the run-time, you can’t have a hollow actress like Diaz come in and try to fluff the scene up when there’s blood running down the walls.
To cap this review off, I’ll end on a better note: the set pieces and the tone of the film were pitch-perfect for a period piece like this one. The dilapidation and slummy atmosphere really gave a visual reference to what history books talked about when they mention Civil War-era New York City. It was just a fucked up place with a lot of immigrants no one seemed to want.
Dare I say much like Operation Iraqi Freedom-era California…?
But I guess there’s a different time and place for all that politics bullshit.
I could have sworn I reviewed this movie. I guess not.
If you don’t remember what this film is about, let me refresh your memory: Morally Ambiguous Oilman vs. Morally Ambiguous Prophet (The Fight of the Fucking Century only on PPV [after Girls Gone Wild: First Timers])
It might even be better that I haven’t written about this film because, unlike some of my reviews (Blood Simple, Magnolia, Platoon, Boondock Saints), I’m writing after multiple viewings. Therefore, it’s bound to be less reactionary and more reflective or analytical.
I first saw this film when it was in the limited stage of its platform release. I was packed into a theater in Pasadena because I really wanted to see Paul Dano tear the motherfucking roof off. I really liked him in Little Miss Sunshine and the scenes we see of him in the trailers are awesome in its most absolute sense.
If you remember the show Carnivale that used to be on HBO, he reminds me a bit of Brother Justin who was a preacher that turned out to be very evil inside. And that’s what I see in Dano’s character Eli Sunday. A lot of facade and a whole lot more of evil and greed.
I’ll be the first to admit that I wanted to see this film because of Paul Dano and not Daniel Day-Lewis. Hell, I’ve never even seen Gangs of New York (Scorsese is tough for me).
What I got from Paul Thomas Anderson’s directing and writing was a film built more upon facial expressions and subtlety than upon dialog. A film that it takes multiple viewings to finally understand some things. It’s like a bizarro David Lynch film like Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. (Inland Empire has no meaning. It’s three hours of existential crises that make Samuel Beckett jealous) except instead of the twists being within the plot, they’re within the face. There are many things that could’ve been said but, instead, Anderson chose for them to be expressed.
Which is the pacing complaint arises. When there’s no dialog and just two people looking at each other on screen, most people are bound to get bored–especially upon first take. But these “boring” moments are where the film excels. The cold stares of Day-Lewis and the conniving or sniveling, desperate, looks of Dano speak louder than any word could have. Anderson acknowledges the adagecliche that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and, in a movie where things are composed of 24 pictures per second, why fucking bother with words sometimes? You can’t cram 24,000 words into a second of film–but you can at the same time if you take to the adage as Anderson has.
This film excels at speaking depths while silently rolling towards its anti-climax. It is a character study taken to its highest level. It nearly throws plot by the wayside in favor of showing, slowly or quickly, just what Day-Lewis is doing at each and every second. The movie’s pace slows enough for us to take in every single piece of the character. It’s so beautiful, and it’s only upon multiple viewings do you realize such a thing.
Another aspect of this film that really excels is the scoring by Jonny Greenwood. He swirls and moves his pieces like a horror film so as to accent the tension in each scene he’s needed. (Fun Fact, by the way: The movie is 158 minutes while the score is only about 50 minutes) Some of his pieces sound like an orchestra simply tuning up before the big show–and it works because that’s exactly what this movie has. A lot of tuning before a small piece.
And you haven’t listened to his piece “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” you really should (I found a link where you can stream it in Real Audio, which is kind of a shitty format, but it’s a good piece of music that deserves a listen). And listen to Radiohead, he’s pretty good at guitar too.