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

Casino Jack


Casino Jack

Even though Kevin Spacey is calling to verify, Barry Pepper looks skeptical that he’s got 250 pounds in that weight.

(2010) Biodrama (ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz, Conrad Pla, Christian Campbell, Yannick Bisson, Spencer Garrett, Hannah Endicott-Douglas, David Fraser, Graham Greene, Maury Chaykin, Stephen Chambers, Rachelle Lefevre. Directed by George Hickenlooper

We grew up thinking that American politics were relatively corruption-free, compared to other countries. That politicians would vote their conscience and while not necessarily paragons of virtue, were at least not for sale. How wrong we were.

Jack Abramoff (Spacey) was one o the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. He had some of the most powerful men in the world on speed dial; he could get men elected or doom their campaigns. His alliance with Native American casinos helped liberalize the laws that allowed them to flourish. An orthodox Jew, he helped fund Jewish community centers and education facilities and was a pillar of his community.

Jack and his partner Michael Scanlon (Pepper) lived high on the hog, funneling the money from Indian casinos into the pockets of politicians, with a certain amount remaining for themselves in fees. But the two men get greedy, deciding to hire seedy Virginia businessman Adam Kidan (Lovitz) who has ties to mobster Big Tony (Chaykin) to further skim off the top.

When Scanlon’s girlfriend Emily Miller (Lefevre) discovers he’s cheating on her, she starts talking to investigators about the wrongdoing that she’s fully aware of – things that the savvy Abramoff had warned him not to discuss with anyone. Big Tony becomes uneasy and orders a hit on Kidan which fails. Kidan also begins to talk – and the empire around Abramoff begins to crumble.

Director George Hickenlooper was best known for his documentaries – including the acclaimed Heart of Darkness which looked at the troubled production of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  He tells his tale here with admirable tautness, taking the brevity of the documentary form and mixing it with the richness of a narrative. Sadly, he passed away less than two months before the film opened in the United States.

This is very much Spacey’s film. For a time after American Beauty, he was perhaps the best actor in Hollywood  with a string of performances that were as good as any body of work for a comparable amount of time in the history of movies. Strong hyperbole I know but you can certainly make an argument for it. However after his Bobby Darin movie, he seemed to move away from the limelight deliberately, opting to spend more time on the stage and mostly confining himself to supporting roles over the past decade or so. This is his best performance in years, taking Abramoff – a very complex human being – and humanizing him. We see his manic, compulsive side and his tender, giving side sometimes within moments of one another. Kelly Preston plays his wife and the two have a pretty decent chemistry going.

One of the things that I really liked about this movie is that you really see how lobbying works in the political system. I also admire the courage of the filmmakers in naming names and pointing fingers. There are no punches pulled; those that were involved with Abramoff are portrayed here, either with actors or in documentary footage of the Senate hearing which is weaved in masterfully with the re-created footage. Spacey has a moment where he harangues the Senators passing judgment on him, reminding them that most of them took money from him for their campaigns. This all occurs in his head, of course – in reality Abramoff has been relatively charitable towards his accusers.

This makes a fine companion piece to the documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money which portrays Abramoff in a less sympathetic light, preferring to opine that he was symptomatic of the corruption and arrogance in the Republican party. Hickenlooper doesn’t make such indications, pointing out that this is a political problem that doesn’t belong to a single party (which of course it doesn’t). The real Jack Abramoff actually is leading the fight against lobbying following his release from his prison sentence. Perhaps to atone for his own actions, he remains a zealot dedicated to changing how politics work.

This was characterized as the worst political scandal since Watergate and yet it passed through the American consciousness like a Kardashian sex tape. In fact, it would be fair to say the Kardashians got more notice than the Abramoff trial. It involved some of the top figures in the George W. Bush White House, resulted in the indictment and conviction of a U.S. Congressman (Bob Ney) and in Abramoff’s fall from grace. What it should have done was prompt a re-examination of the role of lobbyists in the political structure but it is business as usual in Washington. That’s perhaps the most tragic aspect of this whole sordid affair.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Spacey’s best performances in the last five years. A sobering look at how lobbyists are subverting the political process.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The foul language is pretty much non-stop. There is a bit of sexuality involved as well as a little nudity, and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed with the digital Red One Camera in Canada utilizing blue screen technology with characters filmed in Canada projected onto backgrounds filmed in Washington and Miami.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a gag reel but not much else.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $12M production budget; this wasn’t a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: True Colors

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT:More of the American Experience

Inside Job


Inside Job

The scene of the crime.

(2010) Documentary (Sony Classics) Matt Damon (voice), Eliot Spitzer, Glenn Hubbard, Barney Frank, Paul Volcker, Lee Hsien Loong, Domnique Strauss-Kahn, Gillian Tett, Sigridur Benediktsdottir, Satyajit Das, Jerome Fons, Andrew Lo, William Ackman. Directed by Charles Ferguson

 

There is no doubt that the financial crisis of 2008 was completely avoidable. Regulations that had been in place since the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash had been systematically removed, first during the Reagan administration but continuing through the Bush, Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. The government that was supposed to protect us from the sharks of Wall Street had in fact aided and abetted their feeding frenzy which led to the crisis.

Most of us have been affected in some way by the crisis. Some of us have lost jobs or homes or know someone who did. Nearly all of us have paid with a drastically adjusted lifestyle that is nowhere near as affluent as it was in 2007 (unless you’re one of the 1%). Most of us feel angry and helpless against the prevarications of the banks and financial institutions that precipitated this mess. What most of us aren’t aware of is that they weren’t the only ones who deserve blame.

Filmmaker Charles Ferguson knows. At one time a dot com millionaire himself, he has become a documentary filmmaker and a fine one – his first film, No End in Sight, showed how disastrous decisions made after the fall of Saddam were leading us to utter disaster – and the Iraqis as well. This movie is even better.

He approaches the crisis calmly and rationally, explaining the steps that led us to the situation we’re in starting in, of all places, Iceland. That country had a robust economy until deregulation (pushed for by the banks and greedy investors) led them to near economic collapse well before our own crisis. Even with that warning in place, few noticed or cared that we were headed in the same direction. Anyone who did raise the alarm was condemned as a Luddite or a socialist. Of course we could trust our bankers and financiers to do what’s best. They’re all interested in a healthy robust economy ahead of their own short-term financial gains aren’t they?

They aren’t, clearly. Not only that, they actively campaigned for deregulation, even given the examples of history where deregulation would lead – not only in Iceland but in 1929 as well. It is in fact somewhat chilling how similar the two crashes were and Ferguson points out those similarities like a prosecutor.

He questions participants in the freefall, from academics paid by Wall Street firms to write “impartial” papers on the soundness of the system to politicians who were hornswoggled into believing that deregulation would be beneficial to the economy short-term and long. He also points out that nobody has seriously been prosecuted for their roles in manipulating the economy nor have the laws essentially changed. That’s just as true in 2012 as when this movie came out two years ago.

Inside Job won a Best Documentary Oscar in 2011 and it deserves it. If your blood isn’t boiling by the conclusion of the film, you need to get your pulse checked. We are made to understand that we have all fallen asleep at the switch and allowed the government, business and academic sectors to collude for the profits of a few. It is up to us, as narrator Damon points out at the film’s conclusion, to make ourselves heard (as the Occupy Wall Street movement has attempted to do). We have to understand that those who got us in this fix feel like they can afford to wait us out but we can’t allow that to happen. We need to learn from our mistakes, make those people responsible for this accountable and re-establish those regulations that prevented this sort of thing from happening for fifty years – the years which coincided with our nation’s greatest prosperity, not too coincidentally. When is our ADHD nation going to take notice of the important things rather than be distracted by more lurid subjects? Not soon enough, I fear.

WHY RENT THIS: A very capable explanation of the financial meltdown and its lasting consequences. Non-partisan (relatively).  Some gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dry stuff and lots of talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity as well as some drug and sex-related material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Lurie, one of the owners of the Philadelphia Eagles and one of the richest men in the United States, was an executive producer on the film – which is a study in irony in itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed, although if you want to see a few extended interviews with some of the participants you’ll find that here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.9M on a $2M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Made in Dagenham

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