Lincoln

November 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

The passage of the 13th amendment, which freed all slaves, is pretty much the first passage of Civil Rights in this country. Abraham Lincoln was the man behind it, and he’s always been seen as one of the greatest presidents of all time because of it. It’s a great story, because it was far from easy. The country was locked in a Civil War that in a large part was due to the issue of slavery, and even in the North, Lincoln had his detractors. Even in his own party, Lincoln was not considered a great leader. This is the story that Steven Spielberg intends to tell in his latest film, “Lincoln”.

Unfortunately, the film is so cloying, so pandering, so preachy, that what should be a riveting drama about how one of the most important bills ever passed in this nation, is really just a two and a half hour long sermon with the effectiveness of a loud dog barking in the middle of the night. There is no drama here, no real conflict. There are only a bunch of scruffy, rat-faced, or whiny old white men against the noble, do-no-wrong Messiah, Honest Abe (played by Daniel Day-Lewis).

The film begins with a scene between Lincoln visiting troops and is approached by two black men from different regiments. One black man is practically bowing at the feet of Lincoln, while the other piles on exposition to berates Lincoln on not being sincere. From that moment, I sensed trouble. Kushner’s script is so afraid of being misconstrued or taking the risk to be the least bit fair minded, and instead makes sure we all know how wrong slavery was, and how great it was that this bill was to be passed. Well, the whole audience this film is made for is well aware at how wrong it was, and how great the bill was. So, tell a story. But neither Kushner, nor Spielberg, are interested in doing this. They seem more interested in beating us over the head with nobility and sentimentality that, by the last shot, is beyond nauseating.

There is no conviction in the storytelling of this film–it’s more cartoonish than it is historical. The facts are all there, but they’re delivered so simply that it’s hard to believe this is how it really went down. And, with something as urgent as this time was, it’s disingenuous. Lincoln needs votes to secure the bill’s passage–he doesn’t want to wait for the war to end in fear of the South not voting for it. Even as it stands, he won’t get it passed; but he thinks he has a better chance. And the time is “Now, now now!” So 3 men are ordered to “bribe” delegates that are either on the fence, or completely against it. This could’ve been an effective way of showing the power of conviction that Lincoln and his supporters had for the bill–instead, it’s treated as some kind of fun little adventure complete with banter between characters played by James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, and accompanied by a plucky soundtrack by John Williams.

In contrast, any time we see the people against the bill, they’re in dark light, such as the scene with the Vice President of the Confederate States (played by Jackie Earle Haley). His scenes make him look like some kind of dark serpent, or evil creature. He’s lit so we only see one eye, one evil looking eye. Scary. Yes, we get it Spielberg. These are the bad guys. But is that really fair to history? Were they all bad guys? Was everyone for the bill good guys? Isn’t this kind of simplifying of sides what got us into the war in the first place? The reality was that there were no good or bad guys; there was a lot of ignorance, and a lot of intolerance. Lincoln’s intentions initially were to keep the country together, no matter what. Whatever his personal views on slavery were, he did have some in the White House.

But Spielberg doesn’t respect the fact that this was how it was done at this time. Sure, we’re 150 years removed and we know how wrong it is. But we’re going back in time here, and there is not one credible character on the other side of the fence. There’s a scene where one of the weak-minded senators says he’s against slavery but he can’t tolerate this bill because it will lead to women voting. Now, I’m sure that mind-set was a lot more prominent than only coming from this one meek individual. But the scene comes across as easily trying to point out how wrong this character was. Well, no kidding! But why trivialize this event by trying to make it so easy to be on one side or the other? What was at stake for the entire nation if the bill was passed or not? None of that is really explored, leaving everything to easy conclusions that couldn’t possibly be accurate at this time.

There are other problems with the script, too. Robert Lincoln (dutifully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the Union, but his parents are against it because Mary (Sally Field, in her most Oscar-wringing role yet), doesn’t want to lose another son, after their middle son had died due to illness. She comes off as a raving lunatic, while Lincoln is stoic, and strong. This subplot goes absolutely nowhere and doesn’t have anything to do with the main story, nor does it strengthen the theme of the film either.

Lincoln spends a lot of his time in this film making speeches. He comes in a room, he makes a speech. Everyone who is a good guy loves it, everyone who is a bad guy hates it. It goes on like this for the entire duration of the film. His speeches are all the same. He wants what’s best for the country. Yes, we get that. Everyone against him, even at times his friend and his Secretary of State (played by David Strathairn), tries to convince him with horribly unconvincing arguments. I’m not actually even sure why this film is called “Lincoln”. In early drafts of the script it was going to be more of a biopic of Lincoln’s life. But by its final revision, it was narrowed down to passing this amendment. So why isn’t it just called “The Amendment”?

The last scene that shows Lincoln “alive” is the most aggravating. One of his servants looks on as the Great Man in his Top Hat walks down a corridor, admiring how great this man is. Not only do we not ever need to see this shot, but if you haven’t been bludgeoned enough by this time at how Christlike Lincoln is in this film, this scene leaves no doubt.

The simplemindedness of the script is what is most disappointing, though. Is this how far we’ve come intellectually after 150 years that we still can’t bear to look at what the conflict was really about? To be able to look at the other side and be challenged at what they believed as well? I look at the current situation with gay rights. Do you look at everyone who’s against gay marriage and gay rights and say they’re evil? And vice versa, do you look at anyone who is for gay rights and gay marriage as unforgivably bad, or unmistakenly good? Can you tell me every person that’s represented in this film reflects what’s ongoing nowadays? People can be just as ignorant as they were 150 years ago, we have plenty of evidence of that. But we also have come a long way at tolerance. On both sides of the country, you had good and bad, ignorant and educated. If this film was released in the 50’s or early 60’s, the worst I could say about it is that it’s dated. But at least, at that time, we still as a nation were not comfortable with race relations. Sure, racism still exists and always will; but even in films like “American History X”, we get a much more real, cunning, and educated look at how it affects us as a society. That was a powerful, adult film about racism. This film’s almost aimed at children with its simple message that “racism is wrong”.

And if that’s the case, why have all the strong language then? This film is littered with profanity that neither enhances the characters nor gives any scene more flair. In fact, hearing Lincoln use the “s” word almost makes him sound dumber and vulgar. There are scenes that show too much blood and guts for kids to comprehend and handle; and yet, as I said, I can’t see anyone beyond the 5th grade needing to see something like this to shed light on racism.

On top of that, no 5th grader is going to want to spend 2 and a half hours watching old men yell at each other. They have Thanksgiving dinners for that.

My rating: :?

District 9

August 17, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

It’s relieving to know that there are people in Hollywood like Peter Jackson that have some power now. I’ve always believed in the guy, going back to his “Beautiful Creatures” days. I saw “Meet the Feebles” after he had made it bigger (possibly because it wasn’t in DVD rotation until he started making some money) but he’s always had a passion for fantasy, sci-fi, and imaginative storylines. All you have to do is watch one of his films and you’ll know that within the first 10 minutes.

He and his production company put up pretty much all the money for this film directed and co-written by 29 year old Neill Blomkamp, which is about an alien spacecraft that “crash” lands in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the alien occupants become “citizens” of a quarantined area called “District 9?. Pretty much every implication of racism, apartheid, worth of life, and intolerance is explored throughout the narrative and it winds up a fairly clever, fun, and darkly comic fable that–while violent and at times very vulgar, is also charming.

The film’s first twenty-five or so minutes is a bit jarring, in that it flings different POV’s at you at random times, trying to give you an up-to-date idea of what’s going on in “District 9? through a series of interviews and documentary footage. The footage includes talks with Wikus van der Merwe, who eventually is identified as the “hero” of the film, or at least the main character. Wikus is introduced to us as somewhat of a “Company Man”, who is promoted to the head of a group of people to move the aliens out of “District 9? since the human occupants have had enough of them.

A little bit of info on the aliens themselves: they’re creatures that have insect-like qualities, and are extremely ugly. They’re referred to as “prawns”, a derogatory term because they resemble the underwater creatures themselves. There are gangs of these creatures, and they’ve overflowed the city of Johannesburg to the point where they are “sectioned off” and only allowed in certain areas. What does this remind us of? Of course, this is the main theme the film plays with, and it does so fairly well, even if it is a bit obvious.

No one wants these creatures around, and so this group of people have to attempt to get them out of “District 9?–but it’s not so easy, as Wikus learns quickly. Wikus is also married to the daughter of a powerful government official, who was in charge of promoting Wikus to his new position–but he has very little confidence in him, and doesn’t like him. It’s kind of obvious why–he’s an alpha male, and Wikus is a bit spineless. He doesn’t want a violent attack on the creatures while they evict them, but in the course of trying to evict one family, he is exposed to a black liquid that eventually begins to altar his body.

Wikus soon finds that he is becoming one of the creatures. He doesn’t want this to get out, but it eventually does, and he becomes a potential victim of science until he breaks out, and lives as a fugitive in “District 9?. Other things that are going on in District 9 include a group of rogue Nigerians who are buying and collecting the alien weaponry found on the spacecraft–the drawback is that no human can operate it. The Nigerians believe they can use witchcraft and “eat” parts of the aliens to get the power to use it, but to no avail. When Wikus shows up and his ailment is discovered, the Nigerians want him too–well, at least–they want his arm.

Wikus befriends a prawn that he earlier had to evict, and learns that he and his son have hatched a plan to get the spacecraft working again, and go back to their home planet. Wikus also learns that they can cure him and get him to be human again. Once the government learns his whereabouts, and the Nigerians as well, all hell breaks loose and this is where the film turns from an intellectual sci-fi film into balls out action packed shoot-em-up.

To be honest, this didn’t bother me. Much in the way that “Sunshine” devolved into a “slasher film”, the third act didn’t betray the original plot and theme and therefore, I didn’t have a problem with it becoming more of a visual experience rather than a cerebral one. Plus, it is just really cool to see the alien weaponry actually used. If you’re going to set it up, you have to pay it off, and it’s paid off very well.

In fact, the whole movie looks good. This is a credit to the fact that Jackson put up the money–this could’ve been a failed low budget sci-fi film that looked silly; or, it could’ve been a script that sat on a shelf for decades before being picked up by Michael Bay and turned into Transformers 3. Instead, this is a smart film that while it loses itself a bit in action packed violence, never loses itself to the point where you forget how important the theme is in the first place.

This is a movie about tolerance, and it’s executed well enough to be given praise. It deserves a chance to be seen, and I think if you have the right mindset, it may even open your eyes to some of the same problems we face in the real world. Even though these prawns are creatures, in some ways they’re no different than you or I. It promotes the idea of unity rather than segregation; only in this narrative it may be too late for that to happen. There’s been criticism that this film shows Nigerians in a negative light, and that it cheapens the angle of the Apartheid. I think because it’s science fiction, you have to look at it in a more symbolic sense rather than a literal one. As far as vilifying, it depends on how you look at it. I think the entire film gives enough credit to characters where it’s due, and only a few of the “villains” are cartoonish–and the most vile isn’t a Nigerian. Though the film does become more action packed, the film’s climax also leaves ambiguity; but its final scene is incredibly touching.

It’s probably the best movie the summer has to offer, and I have a feeling it will be passed over because of its complexity. But if you’re willing to give it a chance, it delivers.

My rating: :smile: