Sunday, November 18, 2012

“THE MORNING OF THE VOTE:” Spielberg’s History Lesson: Lincoln

When it comes to the Civil War, I have always been more interested in what it was like for the individual nameless soldier thrown into the vast hell of combat rather than in the large mythologized characters of Grant and Lee and Lincoln. This will be shocking to many Civil War enthusiasts, but my least favorite Civil War novel is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. It does little to depict the gritty horror of the most horrific battle in American history. Instead, it focuses on famous generals who stand around discussing strategy and spouting memorable quotations. My favorite Civil War novel, which focuses more on individual soldiers and memorably presents the Battle of Antietam as a savage slaughter, is Confederates, written by the Australian author Thomas Keneally.

For this reason, one of my favorite moments in Spielberg’s Lincoln involves the nameless “Second White Soldier,” played by Dane (Chronicle) DeHaan, who stands nervously in front of Lincoln, swearing and stuttering as he tries to recite the Gettysburg Address. I suppose the device is a little corny, but I see this character. He is real. As for Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis does a masterful job of portraying the thoughtful, erudite, yarning, folksy side of the great American president, speaking in a tight-jawed, laid-back country voice. However, in a long film that has trouble generating a compelling pace, Lincoln’s yarns wear thin. Day-Lewis injects some life into his character and the film when he pounds the table and willfully rants about getting what he wants: the Thirteenth Amendment, and very poignant are the quiet moments with son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who is fascinated by images of slaves (a nice way to illustrate the film’s focus), sets up his lead soldiers on War Department maps, and drives his goat-drawn cart around the White House. But Lincoln the man is eventually overshadowed by big events and hobbled by Spielberg's reverent tone.

Spielberg’s topic is a grand one: the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment that ends that “peculiar institution” of “involuntary servitude” that is America’s Holocaust. But as Spielberg gets wrapped up in treating this grand topic with the same high reverence he treats the tragic ordeal of Jews in the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, throwing in the same close-up of a flame that dissolves to an image of Lincoln giving his second inaugural address, Lincoln the man recedes into the background of House bickering, pushed aside too by the film’s painstaking effort to eke climactic moments out of each House member’s momentous vote. Amidst the squabbling, Tommy Lee Jones takes center stage as Thaddeus Stevens, though I found myself preferring the solid presence of David Straithairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

Spielberg’s film is an enjoyable, well-performed, serviceable history lesson, full of chuckle-inducing quips and anecdotes as it focuses narrowly and reverently on one event in Lincoln’s last year alive even though it is based on a work of non-fiction (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) that covers multiple dramatic events during the last five or six months of the Civil War. Yes, yes, I know Lincoln is about the Thirteenth Amendment and not about the Civil War, but I feel the film loses power and historical context as Lincoln spins his yarns and congressmen quibble over whether or not all men are created equal, and I found myself hankering for the story to break out of its claustrophobic interiors into something shocking and dramatic that might have broken the slow pacing and provided a panoramic backdrop for this historic debate.

My favorite scene, a masterful image, comes early in the film when we see Lincoln’s spooky, ominous dream. This hints at the great film Lincoln could have been - a haunting look at the last months of the great man's life as he juggled management of political rivalry over the Thirteenth Amendment with orchestration of the final fierce campaigns of an epic war.

Why not parallel the suspense and drama of the House debate with some cuts to the suspense and drama of the war? When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) describes his plans for the bombardment of Fort Fisher in which Union ships will fire more than a hundred shells per minute, why not cut to a shot of this fearsome assault made possible by the North’s vastly superior resources? Before Lincoln visits the Petersburg battlefield, why not show Grant’s all-out advance on the Confederates’ fifty-three-mile-long defenses, to show Grant’s assertive total-war battle tactics and how Lee was still able to escape so that he could stubbornly prolong the war? Instead of something expansive, Spielberg takes time for a puzzling, lifeless, overly reverent tableau depicting the surrender at Appomattox. Set to a choral lament, the image seems to pay last-minute homage to Robert E. Lee. The violence is kept off-screen to the very end when Lincoln and his wife, Mary, played splendidly by Sally Field, go off to Ford’s Theater, (an episode that very closely resembles Lincoln's departure for the theater in this summer's Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). When a man runs on stage to shout, “The President’s been shot!” it is on the stage of another theater in which Tad is viewing a swashbuckling play.

For good or ill, Spielberg keeps his narrow focus, the vote is won, and Thaddeus Stevens’s African American housekeeper lies in bed with him and reads the Thirteenth Amendment aloud. (Thankfully, it is short.) In this way, Spielberg teaches us and teaches us and teaches us. Indeed, he doesn’t trust us to know a little bit about the period. When Jared Harris first appears, it is obvious that this stern, bearded, cigar-chomping commander is Ulysses S. Grant, but the subtitle reads, ULYSSES S. GRANT. Conversely, subtitles name the three Confederate peace commissioners, one after the other, even though we don’t need to know their names; we know they are the peace commissioners and that is enough. Later, when the congressmen gather for what is obviously the beginning of the debate, we see the words, THE HOUSE DEBATE BEGINS. When it is obvious that the vote is going to take place in a day or two, we cut to custodians setting things up in the empty House chamber, and John Williams’s momentous music cues us to what we know is going to take place, but still the subtitle tells us it is THE MORNING OF THE VOTE.

Monday, November 12, 2012

High Noon at Skyfall

The rave reviews are out there. Entertainment Weekly gave it an A. They’re calling it the “best Bond.” But I didn’t see it that way.

In the latest James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, Bond is recovering from a near-death experience. He looks older, his cheeks are sunken, and his hand shakes when he aims his gun. That won’t do! Out to thwart him is a villain named Silva, played by Javier Bardem who taps into his own Chigurh from No Country for Old Men as well as Heath Ledger’s the Joker. (Like the Joker, Silva seems to have a limitless army of goons willing to do his bidding and die in droves for him. I always wonder how much these fools are getting paid! Whatever it is, it's not worth it!) The conflict is simple. Silva wants to kill M (Judi Dench) for some past betrayal when Silva was an agent for MI6 – but it seems to be more than that. When, at the end, Silva is just about to shoot M, I almost expected her to say, “No, Silva, I am your mother.”

All sounds good, but the first half of the film is a snooze. We start with yet another chase across the roofs of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Ah, this time it’s with motorcycles, but the Turks need to ban films from shooting in this over-used location. This follows the car chase through the bazaar. Saw that in Taken 2. Then we proceed to the fist-fight on the top of the speeding train. I’m starting to nod off. Hasn’t this been done in a previous Bond film? The Turkish engineer blithely speeds on while Bond rips the roof off a car with a ditch digger. Then, another head scratcher when Bond’s sidekick Eve (Naomie Harris) takes “the shot,” hits Bond, but then doesn’t take another shot at the bad guy! Suck it up, Eve, and do your job!

Later, after Shanghai and a mysterious island, things grow tense when it appears that Silva is going after M in London! But the writers should have thought of any kind of chase other than a chase through a subway. All future films need to be banned from shooting chase scenes in subways. Also, if the sewer roof explodes behind Bond and he says, “Was that for me?” and Silva retorts “No, this is for you,” you and I and James all know that a train’s going to come through the roof and all he has to do is step aside, which he does with no problem. What a waste setting that up, Silva, just to give it away!

The second half (probably less than half) of the film gets better, starting with the chaotic shootout in the hearing chamber, with desk-job agent Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) pulling a gun and joining in. I enjoyed that. Appropriately, what follows plays like High Noon at Skyfall Manor, very much a Western scenario, with a bit of Straw Dogs thrown in for good measure, as Bond, M, and the old game warden (Albert Finney) defend the Alamo. “Welcome to Scotland.”

I liked all the Western stuff, and I liked the stark setting of the stone manor in the middle of the Scottish moor, and the wonderful Roger Deakins-framed images of the pursuit across the moor shot against the bright flames. Loved all that, and I enjoyed the humorous tributes to previous Bond films (the ejector seat), but at nearly two and a half hours, Sam Mendes could have trimmed off most of the first half and gotten us more expeditiously to Showdown at Skyfall. Also, M should have been Silva’s mother.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Chasing a good movie? See Chasing Mavericks

Disgusted that Flight, a serious film about an airliner crash and a pilot (Denzel Washington) struggling with alcoholism, crash-dives when John Goodman struts on screen to "Sympathy for the Devil," trying on a little bit of the Big Lebowski, playing a cheerful provider of booze, cigarettes, and cocaine?

Is Cloud Atlas, at two hours and forty minutes, way too much Tom Hanks for you?

You've seen Argo and one Taken too many?

Then get out there and see Chasing Mavericks, a film about Jay Moriarty, the young man who made surfing history by riding the highest wave off Half Moon Bay, California. If, like me, you had seen the ridiculous preview that makes it look like the latest made-for-Disney Channel teen romance/impossible-athletic-feat movie, you will be surprised to find a more mature drama about mentorship and facing fears, and you can fill your eyes with some stunning cinematography of the gnarly waves off Half Moon Bay. One surprising shot made me exclaim out loud. You can also feast your eyes on the beautiful stretches of Highway 1 between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.

A big plus for me is that I grew up twelve miles from Half Moon Bay and I have gone down those stretches of Highway 1 countless times since childhood, but the story and the gripping climactic scene are well worth viewing no matter where you are from.