Sunday, January 13, 2013

Lincoln: The American President

Good evening, everyone. Second post of the year. I won't be doing that with every post. With the new year of 2013 slowly reaching an unbelievable momentum that will cause me to ponder "Where did the time go?" yet again in December, awards season has just begun officially. This week, myriad awards ceremonies will be broadcasted on television, the triumphs of which shall paint an accurate foretelling of who will strike at the Academy Awards in late February. (I would tell you who the host will be, but you already know that.) During this glorious period of award-giving, I find myself inclined to hunting for the films that are highlighted in the general Oscar race. And watch them. That's what I do, hunt them down and watch them. Of course, I familiarize myself with the contenders and decide which most deserves my close observation and, most importantly, which deserves the esteem it is receiving with nominations. This year, I've settled on a few worthy sure things that should win, and these views are concrete even before I watch them: Among them are Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Les Miserables (though the review in Entertainment Weekly was less than flattering), and Lincoln. The latter seems to be the absolute sure thing for the Best Actor category for Daniel Day-Lewis in a remarkable transformation into the sixteenth president of the United States; and, it seems to me, now, the Best Supporting Actor category for Tommy Lee Jones as a disgruntled abolitionist, which is a damn shame considering the rival candidate. Leonardo DiCaprio may very well experience the outrageous insult of losing yet another well-deserved award. Steven Spielberg, also, appears to have the Best Director nomination in the bag. (I've always disliked that phrase "in the bag". Why do all certainties wind up there?) Basically, Lincoln has plenty of admirers that will catapult it into the echelons of Oscar gold. But, how did it fare with me? As much as I expected from the film, being that both Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis were attached and that it may be the first movie about Abraham Lincoln, it was, for lack of a better word, disappointingly lackluster, in my regards. (Regards, yes.)

Perhaps I should not have expected anything incredible from Steven Spielberg, especially when it concerns the most controversial president in history. He was controversial in the sense that he was notably involved in ending slavery (so to speak) and that he receives passionate mixed interpretations of either the greatest or the utter worst. Of course, if you live in America, you know that the former is more common. Abraham Lincoln is reputed for ending slavery, and the issue of race is eternally relevant in society, so, naturally, he is revered. Though there was a hefty amount of politicians who were against the thirteenth amendment (which outlawed slavery), one crucial event at Ford's Theatre put a cease to their blasphemy as well as stapled Lincoln the unquestionable best. Lincoln's assassination made him to be somewhat of a martyr, for he died because he saved thousands or hundreds or billions (depending where you get your information I guess) of slaves. And he did not have the burden of handling stormy political affairs after the Civil War, only the sweet silence of eternal rest. I may sound horridly subjective, but that's that. As I said, I should not have expected anything astounding from Steven Spielberg's direction of the film because he is known for adjusting his work in the way he sees suitable.
With Lincoln, the perspective generally matches that of everyone else who honors that president: He was a genial, stalwart leader who spoke with eloquence, years of wisdom evident in his profound speeches and thought-provoking actions. Though I can conjure a way of describing his manner in an appealing light, that is not how I see it. What I perceived from Spielberg's interpretation of Abraham Lincoln was that he was a stubborn yet try-to-please-all person (not president or leader, just a person) who displays signs of dementia as he transmits stories of the past to his listeners, primarily tales that have nothing to do with the topic of discussion. This senile tendency alone causes me to see that Abraham Lincoln was a very evasive "leader", since he seemed to use these amusing stories to make others laugh (how nice) and forget about the heated discussion of the nation's politics. Of course, this analysis is based only on the film, not on what I've learned from history lessons. Overall, Steven Spielberg has orchestrated his self-satisfying historical epic, that has critics bowing to his legendary eminence, in a way that fulfills, perhaps, only himself and those who actually enjoyed this which involves comprehending the picture throughout. Apparently, in-depth knowledge of Lincoln's term during the Civil War is mandatory if you wish to watch the film without unanswered questions. Seriously, you need to know everything that is unfolding before you, for there is little explanation and the fast pacing does not allow anyone to catch up. In other words, you would not be able to keep up with the overflowing information and scene-switching. This is interesting, as the film really focuses on the passing of the thirteenth amendment. Moreover, the title of the film is unfitting, since it covers only a shred of Lincoln's term, let alone his entire life, which is what the title implies.

Daniel Day-Lewis stands as an indubitably exceptional actor, sinking into his character as if he were actually becoming that character. I gather this testimony from one performance that I deem the most magnificent of the decade: Bill "The Butcher" Cutting in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Another film set during the Civil War, Daniel Day-Lewis portrays a ruthlessly charismatic leader of one of Manhattan's Five Points gangs who, aside from being violently involved in the Drafts Riots of 1863, was against Abraham Lincoln. This unappealingly unpatriotic trait may explain why Daniel Day-Lewis incredulously lost the most unacceptable loss in the history of the Academy Awards. In Lincoln, obviously, there is a slight role reversal--one that conveniently secures his Oscar victory. As extraordinary as his performance is (as all endeavors of his are), Daniel Day-Lewis is scarcely present in the role of the Great Emancipator, which does not so much as criticize the acting as the actual president himself. (But that is a historical topic unwelcome here.) Based on the screenplay, Lincoln was useful as a mere edifice of the Civil War and a tender advocate for abolishing slavery, the latter of which is little less than true. (Historically speaking, Lincoln was focused more on maintaining the Union than ending slavery; he was even quoted to have said he would rather have half of the slaves freed if it would keep the Union whole. Moving on.) There is not much to rely on when analyzing the accuracy of his portrayal, as there was only an array of speeches, personal accounts, and portraits. There was no actual footage of how Lincoln spoke or of his physical mannerisms and facial expressions. Therefore, Daniel Day-Lewis is judged as an actor of his craft, or rather an impersonator of how Lincoln is viewed through the eyes of the idealistic American public. While there is no evidence as to how Abraham Lincoln behaved, Daniel Day-Lewis gave a marvelous performance in every single frame of the film. It was not, however, even close to what he delivered as The Butcher. Regardless of what I surmise about his performance, Daniel Day-Lewis will receive a third statuette on Oscar night. And, considering his competition, it is well-deserved. True, I have been leaning towards Silver Linings Playbook recently (despite never actually seeing it yet), but I do not see Bradley Cooper beating Daniel Day-Lewis just yet. Same goes for Hugh Jackman. As for Denzel Washington, another brilliant actor who stands amongst Daniel Day-Lewis as one of the greatest, he may prove to be the strongest combatant in this race. Joaquin Phoenix doesn't care, so neither do I about him.

The remaining performances to be recognized are of the supporting sort, in the form of Tommy Lee Jones as the (eternally) stone-faced radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and Sally Field as the hysterical yet composed-in-public First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Already they have been nominated for Oscars for their endeavors, to which I respond in the negative. Of course, they have received Oscar buzz since the film came into light, and I expected each of them to find a place among the nominees. That does not mean that I know they are going to actually win, though I really hope neither of them do. Tommy Lee Jones, everyone is aware, is known for his signature gruffness and intimidating blank stare, as well as his serious, monotonous voice. In films, he settles into the role of the harsh, unfriendly man of higher position, someone who(m) everyone around fears and respects. Here, in Lincoln, one should expect nothing less than his status quo of acting. As stubborn, antagonistic Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones plasters (or maintains) his well-known emotionless, serious expression where you don't know what he's thinking until he talks, in an aggressively straightforward manner. Perhaps I am prejudiced against his character, for I find those anti-slavery abolitionist types to be, for lack of a better word, predictable and conformist. This bias solidifies when Tommy Lee Jones makes his heart-wrenching "vote for the thirteenth amendment, god damn it" speech, which follows with nearly every congressman to vote for the amendment. Then again, did I expect any different ending? Based on history, that is what happens. It's just so corny as all, how all African-Americans started cheering and the congressmen actually picked one another up in triumph or happiness. That is rather immature for representatives of the United States, but I guess that is what occurred in the Capitol that morning. Anyway, Tommy Lee Jones demonstrated absolutely nothing remarkable and worthy of Oscar recognition unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman, who I predict gave a hypnotic performance as a leader of a cult in The Master.
Sally Field has two Best Actress awards already, an incentive for her not to deserve an additional. Also, Anne Hathaway is the clear frontrunner in the Supporting Actress race, so there are no anxieties over whether any other lady will win. Why I am against the victory of Sally Field is that she was too, shall we say, disturbing in her Oscar-emotional scenes, such as when she confronted her husband over their son's premature death. (Premature in manners of "he was gone too soon" or "he was just a boy".) As for her sanguine confrontations with Thaddeus Stevens, she was merely acting in a scene, which does not call for esteem from the Academy. Thankfully she will not be receiving such acclaim. As for Tommy Lee Jones, here's hoping the Academy will be too nervous for even allowing his name to be called. Because he's so intimidating.

There has been a lot of buzz for Steven Spielberg's latest historical epic about that man on the five spot. I meant for that sentence to sound as simple and weak-minded as it did, as it balances with the overall quality of the entire movie. That's right, my fellow beings: Lincoln was an inadequate picture. The reason the preceding text is both grey and italicized is because it was written more than a week ago, when I actually watched the film. It is said that first impressions are the most accurate reactions, though I would not quite agree with that when the scope of cinema broadens. Specifically to other Oscar nominees. After watching Django Unchained, another film with a Civil War-era setting and considerable nominations, I realized that Lincoln was not as unfulfilling as I first conjectured. While it is a tad subjective, what movie about the Civil War and slavery isn't? The last, and perhaps only, great film of that genre is Gone With The Wind, which depicts each side of the slavery argument with flawless objectivity and accuracy (Margaret Mitchell was there to experience it herself.) As for such films of the present times, there exists no comparable film. That being said, Steven Spielberg did an excellent job with his adaptation on Abraham Lincoln, even though it was concerned with one certain period of his life. Really, the title is misleading. The film was, truly, as good as it gets when it comes to depicting Abraham Lincoln. One simply does not illustrate him as a villain or, heaven forbid, supporting slavery. Even if it might have been the truth, filmmakers are to avoid such a controversial area of history. The most one can do is explore Lincoln's hobby of hunting vampires. Isn't society sad? Since Ben Affleck is, regrettably, not in the Best Director field, Steven Spielberg should prepare to wait for everyone to sit done after his name is called, for the first time in thirteen years. (In other words, he should be ready to win.) Daniel Day-Lewis, surely, has composed a humble yet revered speech in his mind, for he is not so pompous as to have one prepared on paper in his jacket. And the supporting actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field, should--should--sit this one out, for there are others more worthy of such an honor, I'm afraid. Do not be repelled by the incredible length, for this is a historical epic that should be experienced, quite frankly, if not for Steven Spielberg then to be hypnotized by Daniel Day-Lewis in his embodiment of Abraham Lincoln. Though once is definitely enough.

David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward
Immensely overlooked actor. Much better than Tommy Lee Jones, I reckon.

P.S. You may have noticed that I mentioned Django Unchained as my reasoning for giving Lincoln a lighter, more accepting judgment. By that, one might assume that Django Unchained was not as extraordinary as I before said it would be. Also, this post has been in draft for more than a week, so several of the praising references to Django may not balance with other mentions I've made. Well, you'll be surprised, once I write about it in the near future. Have a pleasant week, and keep the winners of the Golden Globes to yourselves!

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