Lincoln


Lincoln

The pressures of being President encapsulated.

(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.

But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.

We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.

His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.

To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.

Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.

Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?

As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.

But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.

You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.

Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like  lioness.

There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.

REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days

CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Fifth Quarter

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The Insider


The Insider

The young tiger and the old lion.

(1999) True Life Drama (Touchstone) Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Diana Venora, Philip Baker Hall, Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Stephen Tobolowski, Colm Feore, Bruce McGill, Gina Gershon, Michael Gambon, Rip Torn, Lynne Thigpen. Directed by Michael Mann

 

On one level, this movie could be taken as the story of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the corporate whistleblower who braved much external pressure, death threats, the dissolution of his family and the pangs of his own conscience to step forward and point the finger at Big Tobacco, making several lawsuits against them possible.

On another level, this movie could be taken as the story of Lowell Bergman, the courageous producer who brought Wigand’s story to “60 Minutes,” and how he fought to air the story. However, what The Insider is really about is how big corporations whether Big Tobacco or Big Media run our lives in an insidious fashion. They determine what we see on the news, decide what we are allowed to say or not say. It illustrates, in a very subtle manner, how Orwellian our country really has become, and right under our very noses.

Russell Crowe stars in an Oscar-nominated performance as Wigand, a high-ranking scientist and corporate executive at a major tobacco company whose conscience and temper have recently gotten him fired. He has a daughter with a severe asthmatic condition, so medical benefits are paramount to him. His former employer is willing to keep those benefits in place as long as Wigand signs a confidentiality agreement, which Wigand does on two separate occasions (they choose to broaden the scope of the agreement early on in the film).

Bergman (Pacino) is referred to Wigand by a colleague to help him understand some scientific data. Eventually, it becomes clear that Wigand wants to talk and Bergman, realizing the enormity of what he has to say and the evidence in his possession, coaxes him along. Eventually, Wigand testifies in court and does an interview with Mike Wallace (Plummer) on the venerable primetime news program.

Except that CBS corporate doesn’t want to air the story. Nervous about possible litigation running into the billions of dollars at a time when the network is on the auction block, they effectively kill the story with the blessings of 60 Minutes producer Don Hewett (Hall) and Wallace.

It is watching the machinations behind the scenes that is almost as fascinating as Wigand’s own story, which could have made a movie riveting by itself. The tension that Wigand lives through here is palpable, and when you try to put yourself in his shoes, you only marvel at the man’s tenacity. Together, the two stories make for an extremely watchable movie. 

There is some acting here, from Crowe who began a run of incredible performances which would net him an Oscar (although not for this movie) to Pacino who was at his best here. Plummer channeled the late Mike Wallace nicely, even if it wasn’t a very flattering portrait always. Mann doesn’t always get enough credit for it but he seems to have a knack for pulling out superior performances from his actors in nearly all of his movies, going back to his days on the “Miami Vice” television show.

Well after this movie came out we saw just how devastating the lack of corporate conscience is to the economic health of this country, so in many ways this movie was prescient. When short-term greed for bottom line profits overrides common sense and dignity, the results are very much in evidence. Corporate greed is not the sole province of the financial industry; obviously it is prevalent throughout big business, and this was a movie that not only saw that but blew the whistle on it earlier than most. In that sense, it is a chilling precursor to what was to come and a grim warning to what can still occur if we don’t act. The Insider is a jolting reminder that all of us are touched in some way by the corporate culture of profit obsession that has lingered from the days of the robber barons and still is the defining aspect of American big business.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous, Oscar-caliber performances. Subject that is as relevant now as it was then.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language can get a bit harsh in places.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a feature called “Inside a Scene” which allows the viewer to read the director’s notes and script for a scene before viewing how the scene played out. It’s a fascinating concept but isn’t available for a lot of scenes here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on a $90M production budget; the movie lost money in its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Whistleblower

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Battleship

J. Edgar


J. Edgar

Armie Hammer and Leonardo di Caprio get a look at the critics who complained about their make-up.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Ken Howard, Geoff Pierson, Dermot Mulroney, Zach Grenier, Denis O’Hare, Damon Herriman, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, Christopher Shyer. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Like the subject of yesterday’s documentary review, J. Edgar Hoover is a polarizing figure. There are those who believe he was the nation’s greatest lawman, a tremendous organizer and meticulous planner who built the Federal Bureau of Investigation from a powerless joke to perhaps the most elite law enforcement group in the world.

However, there are many who look at him as more of a cautionary tale, proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. His confidential files on many prominent Americans destroyed lives and created a climate of fear that lasted for half a century. Eastwood, a prominent Libertarian, takes on a figure who remains enigmatic more than thirty years after his death, one whose private life was a source of great speculation but of which little is truly known.

Hoover (di Caprio) is embroiled in a feud with Martin Luther King, whom he considers to be a dangerous subversive. He also finds that his legacy is being tarnished and he feels that it is time to remind America just what an important part he played in keeping the country safe, deciding to dictate his memoirs to a parade of agents over the course of several years.

Starting with the Palmer Raids in 1919 when as a lawyer for the Department of Justice, he instituted a task force of Bureau of Investigation agents who would arrest anarchists after a series of bombs (including one at the home of then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Pierson) who eventually appointed Hoover to his post).

Hoover’s bureau is at first toothless; not allowed by law to make arrests or carry firearms, they function mainly in an advisory capacity and aren’t taken too seriously in the law enforcement community. Hoover recruits men he feels will be above reproach both morally and professionally, including Clyde Tolson (Hammer), a young man that Hoover fancies. However, homosexuality is completely taboo back then and if Hoover has feelings for Tolson, he must hide them well.

Not only from the bureau but from his mother (Dench) who tells him she would rather have a dead son than a live daffodil, referring  to the nickname of a gay acquaintance of the family who killed himself after being outted. Hoover lives with his overbearing mother even though he is the chief of an important bureau in Washington.

Once prohibition begins, the age of the gangster commences. Hoover turns his attention from anarchists and communists to gangsters who are not only running around lawless (and escaping justice by crossing state lines) but have captured the popular imagination. Hoover demands and gets legislation that allows his FBI officers broader powers, including the power to make arrests and carry firearms. When Hoover is criticized for not having personally arrested anyone, he stages arrests to make it look like he was the agent in charge when in reality he was just showing up for the press cameras after the dangerous work was done.

The kidnapping of the son of Charles Lindbergh (Lucas) becomes a game changer. Hoover endures the ridicule of supercilious cops (Mulroney) and watches them bungle the investigation, refusing to use the modern investigative techniques that Hoover (to his credit) was instituting at the FBI. Of course, history records the fate of the Lindbergh baby but it was the FBI who arrested Bruno Hauptmann (Herriman) for the crime.

Eastwood makes clear that Hoover used the tragedy to further his own agenda, which in particular allowed the FBI to be in charge of a central repository of fingerprints . He also used it as publicity to establish the FBI as an organization to be admired; a series of comic books came out portraying Hoover as an action hero, taking down criminals himself (when in fact he did not).

It was about this time that Hoover began keeping private files on public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, which he used as potential sources of blackmail to get what he wanted but also to keep an eye on people he considered subversive. Those files would cover figures from politicians to Presidents, actors to musicians, writers to journalists and go well into the 1970s.

The movie deals with Hoover’s private life gingerly, including the rumors of cross-dressing and homosexuality, both of which are disputed to this day. Eastwood intimates that both were in the background but never really acted upon.

The movie is long (but then again it deals with a 50 year career in the public eye) and it drags a bit towards the end. Some critics have complained that Eastwood doesn’t give Hoover an excoriation for his abuses of power (which I think was unnecessary – there have been plenty of calling to accounts for Hoover to render another one unnecessary) and that the old age make-up used by Hammer and di Caprio were distracting (which I found untrue).

After a subpar effort with Hereafter Eastwood returns to form with a potential Oscar contender. Di Caprio delivers a powerful performance that has to be considered an early entry into the Best Actor race. He makes Hoover relatable and human in some ways, while enigmatic and unapproachable in others. He never demystifies Hoover but never makes him a demagogue either. He is a man with an agenda, one which mostly involved cementing his own power, authority and position. He was also a man who yearned for acceptance and admiration.

Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, is the glue that holds the movie together. He is the conscience of the king in many ways, and his Clyde witnesses some egregious violations of civil liberties and common decency but he is above all else loyal both to the bureau but more to the man.  It is at times heartbreaking to watch.

Less has been said about Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s executive assistant and in most ways the keeper of his secrets. She was a formidable woman in her own right and according to the movie anyway, rejected a proposal of marriage from Hoover. Watts gives her that inner strength as well as making her easy on the eyes. It’s a very strong performance that may well get some Oscar consideration of its own, although I’m less sure of that it will personally.

Is this the definitive film biography of the former FBI director? It certainly is for now but I’m not 100% sure that there isn’t a better movie on his life out there to be made. For my money, this is a very good movie that works not only as a biography but a look at the trappings of power and how seductive they can be. It truly is a cautionary tale and one which I sadly suspect we haven’t learned from as a species yet.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-caliber performances from di Caprio and Hammer. A return to form for Eastwood.

REASONS TO STAY: The bouncing around of timelines sometimes gets confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language here and there and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Armie Hammer’s great-grandfather was oil tycoon Armand Hammer who was suspected by Hoover of having communist ties; Hoover was said to have had a confidential file on him.

HOME OR THEATER: This would probably look just as good at home as it would in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Creation (2009)

Sicko


Sicko

Everything is golden in France.

(2007) Documentary (Lionsgate) Michael Moore, Tucker Albrizzi, Tony Benn, Reggie Cervantes, Richard M. Nixon, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Billy Crystal, John Graham, Linda Peeno, Aleida Guevara, William Maher, Patrick Pedraja . Directed by Michael Moore

There is no doubt that America’s health care system is a national disgrace. It was true when Michael Moore made this documentary in 2006 and it is even more so today. While politicians bicker and posture, and lobbyists work their magic (in 2007 there were four health care lobbyists for every politician in Washington), people suffer and die.

Rather than point the camera at the 50 million Americans without any health care (a number that has increased since this film was made), Moore instead focuses on the 150 million that do (a number that has decreased since the film was made). He does it in a way reminiscent of an old joke; all Americans who think they are covered by their health care plans step forward – not so fast, you there.

He does this anecdotally, looking at individual cases that are heartbreaking and horrific. Mothers whose daughters were in need of critical attention at an Emergency Room being told their health care plan didn’t cover care at that hospital, and having the daughter die en route to a different hospital. A woman knocked unconscious in an auto accident being carted to the hospital by ambulance only to be charged for her ride because she didn’t pre-approve the ambulance, something she could have done if she were conscious.

Bureaucrats who are paid bonuses to deny coverage, to the point where legitimate claims are being denied because of an undisclosed yeast infection years ago. Volunteers at Ground Zero, breathing in toxic fumes in order to help recover bodies, develop respiratory ailments and are denied coverage because they were volunteers. It’s enough to make your blood boil.

Moore makes a case for socialized medicine and on the surface it’s a pretty compelling one. In France, doctors make house calls and maternity leaves are a full year. In England, doctors in their socialized medical system continue to live among the upper strata of society, putting paid the fear that doctors here would become underpaid and eventually the best and brightest wouldn’t want to be in the medical profession here.

Moore looks at the bureaucracies at HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies, noting the obscene profits they make and debunking the popular excuse that these companies put their profits into research and development, which is patently not true.

Moore pretty much leaves no room for doubt as to where he stands – that’s pretty much true of all his films – and while you have to admire his conviction and loyalty to his opinions, there is no discussion of any other options, as if we’re either stuck with the system we have or go with socialized medicine. There is no middle ground, or even different options. However on a personal note, I happen to agree with Moore in this instance.

In the four years since this documentary was made, a new President has been elected, one who attempted to institute reform to our health care system and has been fought tooth and nail on every front. We wound up with a watered-down version of what he originally wanted, one which Republicans vow will be overturned.

As I said to begin with, the state of health care in the United States is a national disgrace. It doesn’t have to do with the doctors and nurses and technicians who provide extraordinary care to their patients but with the bureaucrats and politicians who undermine the ability of those health care professionals to provide that care to all who need it.

Let me put this in another way. Let’s say the CEO of Goldman Sachs gets a rare form of cancer. At the same time, an unemployed factory worker gets the same exact disease. Both need an expensive and rare treatment. The CEO, with the best health care money can buy, will in all likelihood not be denied by the health insurance he carries and even if he is, he can afford to pay for it himself. The factory worker, unable to afford the treatment, must hope he gets better on his own. My question to you is this; why is the life of the CEO of Goldman Sachs worth more than that of the unemployed factory worker? And why is some functionary at a health insurance company allowed to make that call?

WHY RENT THIS: A scathing look at a problem which continues to plague us to this day.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As is typical for Moore, he tends to be overly slanted towards his own beliefs; other solutions tend to be ridiculed or not given coverage at all.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a little rough and the concepts might fly over the head of younger people.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Insurance companies banned their employees from speaking to Moore under any circumstance for this documentary.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video, a featurette on Norway’s policies which outdo those of France, a look at an attempt to introduce a national health insurance plan pre-Obamacare and a look at community fundraisers to aid those who can’t afford their medical bills.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.1M on a $9M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Make Believe