LINCOLN: The “Long Rough” History With Fairness

 Lincoln    One would be hard pressed to find a more educational, entertaining, and sensual two and a half hours of film than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. That this movie comes to us at a time when an African-American sits in the white house seems prophetic. It is this information that provides the dramatic irony that streams throughout the arguments against abolition on the floor of congress and makes the viewer keenly aware of Lincoln’s moral courage even as Lincoln, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, himself could not verbalize how

the effects of a 13th Amendment passage would manifest.

The 16th president was a driven man, an autodidact with a tremendous humility that tempered the tremendous power that comes with the Presidency. The movie, taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, lays to rest the oft told tales of Lincoln’s moral ambivalence towards the idea of ending slavery. The central conflict in Lincoln deals with the opposition of the Democrats in the House of Representatives to the passage of the 13th Amendment and educates the viewer as it pulls apart the south’s argument for the continuation of slavery. The importance of this amendment passage is obvious. But, the rush of activity to pass this legislation in that particular month (January 1865) rather than wait for a new pro-Lincoln congress to be seated needs explanation.  The prevailing rationale was that Lincoln wanted to show cross-party approval to prove a national unity. But, hadn’t national unity been evident with Lincoln’s reelection in 1864? In his New York Times review of Lincoln, professor of history at the University of Virginia, Philip Zelikow, suggests Spielberg is the truer “historian” here because the movie’s explanation “that Lincoln and…Secretary of State William H. Seward,  realized that the war might end at any time and when it did, any prospect for passing the amendment as a means to win the war would end with it” (NYT Opinionator, 2012), provides a more persuasive argument.  Using this premise, Spielberg sets up the intrigue prompted by the parallel story of   Francis Preston Blair Sr. (played by the late Hal Holbrook) the well-respected, conservative Republican and his attempts to arrange secret peace talks between Confederate and Union envoys. It is plausible that had these talks actually taken place prior to the vote, and a peace agreement been signed, the argument for the passage of the 13th Amendment (the necessity of outlawing slavery forever to end the war) would have been found weak.  Spielberg’s movie pulls back the curtain on the workings of the House and the men who filled the air with jubilant applause or boos and hisses depending on the matter at hand. But even this frat-house atmosphere did not minimize the effect of the heightened language used to cut and rend its target with precise aim. The radical Republican (no oxymoron in this instance) Thaddeus Stevens, played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones, spouted erudite rejoinders that made me wish I had a paper and pen to record his words for personal posterity (and usage).

The four-month period covered in the film represents the last four months of Lincoln’s life and serves to humanize Lincoln, his family and close friends. We hear Lincoln – before we see him – his dreams being recalled to his wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field. The sense that his wife is the vessel into which Lincoln’s hopes for the future of a whole country are poured is prominent from the very beginning. We are treated to Lincoln’s soft nurturing side as he spots his son Tad (played by Gulliver McGrath) asleep by the fireplace and proceeds to get down on the floor, lovingly stroking his son’s hair before hoisting him on his back for the trip to bed thus completing what we come to believe is this father and son’s bedtime ritual. It is hard to say who is responsible (director or actor) for the humanity that animates Lincoln. Maybe it is simply the collective elegance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg that binds the audience to the film’s message. The same can be said for Mary Todd Lincoln. Sally Field lets us see the tormented Mrs. Lincoln who, after suffering a parent’s worst nightmare – the death of a child – continues to waver between fierce reality and a drain-circling melancholia. We see Mrs. Lincoln’s insight as she attempts to locate her place in history, suggesting that she will be forever seen as the hysterical wife and impediment to a famous husband.  Today, Mary Todd Lincoln would be treated with a well prescribed anti-depressant and expected to snap out of it for the sake of the country.  But parental torment is not hers alone. Both husband and wife do verbal battle in an argument laced with a combined, unresolved grief. It is Lincoln who acknowledges his grief, declaring it just as legitimate as his wife’s. The president’s outburst emotion underscores the enormous weight wrought by the his desire to pass legislation of great scale and the heart-deadening sadness of his child’s death.

The movie’s subtle lighting lends itself to the somber plot. The soft close lighting of the lair belonging to democratic party operative William Bilbo, played convincingly by James Spader, added to the intrigue of the Bilbo character who, now freed from prison by Lincoln, begins to lobby/politic for the passage of the 13th  Amendment.  The relationship between Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, played by David Strathairn, embodies John Hay’s (Assistant Private Secretary to Abraham Lincoln) description of a “friendship…so absolute and sincere…between these two magnanimous spirits.” Seward is by turns conscience and devil’s advocate assuring Lincoln of multiple perspectives on issues. But it is Day-Lewis’s Lincoln who commands the screen as he is shuttled around a muddy Washington in an open carriage and as he spurs then halts his horse through battlefields quiet but for the smoke and blood. We see the pain of a man, a husband, and a father as he sadly takes in the faces of the dead – young men the age of his oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln who desperately wants to fight for the Union cause. Lincoln’s calm demeanor is broken three times – once in his argument with his wife, and when he slaps his oldest son in parental frustration with his son’s military aims, and again when he pounds his fist on the desk yelling for his team to get the votes needed to pass the amendment.   This last outburst sets off a montage of activity detailing  perfectly calibrated cajoling, lobbying and the promising of all manner of perks to the congressional lame ducks. Lincoln’s insistence on getting the necessary votes rather than be satisfied with Blair’s peace arrangement with the south leaves one to shudder at the potential for disaster had the south been left to take care of its slave “problem.”  It is as if Lincoln knew this, knew of his limited time left and was quite willing to endure the long rough history with fairness.

“The Master” Blows

Can a movie that is, in parts, visually pleasing, with great performances, and reference an intriguing, powerful and controversial religious movement, be a failed movie on the whole?  Yes. “The Master” via master film director, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights), fails to assemble all its beautiful parts into a thematic, cinematic whole.

The cinematography is excellent. Establishing shots do what they were meant to do but Anderson fails to leave well enough alone going even further, eventually crushing the movie-going experience with overly long establishing shots minus the mesmerizing cinematic beauty of say, Malick’s “Days of Heaven” or Minghella’s “The English Patient.”  Without these directors’ sweeping panoramas, “The Master” could have saved the viewer’s soul by just getting its characters (in one transition) to the damn front door: Establish the scene with a wide shot of the house, cars of traveling congregants pulling to the curb then cut to the interior. The viewer gets the message. But to hold on to the wide shot, get the characters out of the cars, set the suitcases on the parkway and hugs all-round from wealthy host before strolling up the walkway to the inside is at best boring and at worst, indulgent. There is a belief around the industry (often unspoken, considering the political dynamics between directors and those in post-production)  that a writer should not be allowed in the editing room where his/her work is being brought to life. But maybe these mind numbing, overly long shots were the actual intent of film editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty. Maybe. But doubtful.

“The Master” will and should get Oscar buzz. The actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, turn in riveting performances. Lancaster Dodd is the charismatic leader of the Cause. (“The Master” is loosely based on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard). Hoffman’s Dodd forced me to forget the indulgence of the editing, captured as I was by his sonorous, patriarchal manner that invited me to be a part of his “Cause”. Like most charismatic leaders Dodd is quite full of himself and burying his writings in the desert was something akin to the elder Joseph Smith (Church of Latter Day Saints founder) translating scripture from buried ‘golden plates.”  Dodd’s wealthy followers gladly fund his ‘process’ parties providing elegant food and shelter for their leader as they cling to their “master” and his self-styled scientific approach to personal happiness and fulfillment.  Writer/director Anderson is on familiar ground with this ongoing theme of one’s search for meaning (Magnolia) and those leaders who are inclined to see these searchers as manna for their egos. Sadly, Lancaster Dodd is not allowed to take this menacing plot-strand to its ultimate potential.

Unlike Dodd, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is at once dangerous and unsympathetic. Phoenix ups his character’s ‘creep factor’ ten-fold with his continuously slouched posture suggesting a furtive and unhealthy lack of integrity. We first see Quell on a public beach simulating sex with a sand sculpture of a naked woman. If that doesn’t invite a review of one’s lunch then surely Quell’s hand digging sand out the sculpture’s vaginal area creating a more anatomically correct ‘woman’ will. Quell is emotionally lost and, after his stint in the navy during WW II, left to wander the country taking jobs as luck presents itself.   Quell reenters the civilian working world as a hard-drinking, department store photographer with a veneer of civility that is easily cracked by the sobering dullness of his job. Quell’s alcoholism creates a hair-trigger anger that dooms this character to a life of hard labor until, running away from an angry group of migrant laborers, he spies Dodd’s yacht in a San Francisco harbor. It is here I wanted “The Master” to blossom with the intertwining stories of a creature looking for ‘god’ and a man willing, by necessity, to be that god.  But no, what I witnessed was a meandering plot line that did not want (out of fear?) to make Lancaster Dodd the vile, manipulative megalomaniac that comes with the territory of a 20th century charismatic cult leader. Director Anderson shows Dodd as sympathetic, even loving the unlovable drunk that is Freddie Quell. Yes, there is the hint of scandal in Dodd’s arrest for, ostensibly, defrauding rich patrons but that plot line is left hanging. The viewer never learns the truth behind his arrest and quick bail. In fact, that scene serves only to strengthen the viewer’s sympathy for Dodd as he professes to Quell that he (Dodd) is the only one who likes him.  It is hard to understand why Dodd likes Quell even as he drinks the ‘delicious’ paint thinner-laden alcoholic drinks Quell concocts. In fact, alcoholic mixtures of whatever is horribly available seems to be the only talent Quell can bring to Dodd’s empire.  But, Dodd works hard to change the angry ways of his latest acolyte via a suspiciously unscientific method of having Quell walk back and forth from wall to window as the rest of the followers look on until at the end of one session (and the viewer’s emotional rope) Dodd simply says stop. I wanted to scream, “why?” There was not enough space to tread in that dinning room to quell the demons of Freddie Quell. And even this did not kill Quell’s willingness to maim those who found themselves in Dodd’s presence brave enough to express doubt.  By the movie’s end I thought Freddie’s liver would get screen credit for the abuse it received. If not screen credit then surely the disclaimer; no liver was harmed in the making of this movie.

Overall, the acting in “The Master” was superb. I was quite fearful of Freddie Quell’s authenticity and endeared to the calm veneer of Dodd’s easily cracked belief system. But, there is only so much actors can do for a script with no centralized conflict. Truth be told, it was Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s wife who could have provided the evil Shakespearean fulcrum from which to launch the vile net of emotional imprisonment. But, again Anderson skirts the potential for more cinematic substance. Suffice it to say, I came to the end of  “The Master” appreciative of the acting but unimpressed with this 2 ¼ hour movie that could have lost 20 minutes and benefited by the tightening, redirection of stray plot lines and a more fearless director.

Dark Shadows – Oh Please…

   You’ve heard the rumor that you cannot simply kill (in ordinary fashion) a vampire.  Sadly, this is true. I can say with confidence that even 30 pieces of silver bullets could not slay Tim Burton’s latest theatrical beast. I know this now, after I took the bait; Johnny Depp in anything has to have some merit – right? Wrong!

I am not a disgruntled Dark Shadows follower from 1971 left to simmer in some angry stew of TV show cancellation. My vampire interests began and ended with Anne Rice’s trilogy on the vampire theme. So, when I saw the trailer in which the unlawfully beautiful teenager, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) asks Barnabus if he is “stoned” and heard Depp’s   17th century verbal play on the word, I thought I’d get to see vintage Depp via a humorous Burton retelling. Unfortunately that trailer presented just one of the two humorous scenes in the movie. Now that I think about it, the movie was so bad I can’t remember the other funny scene.

That Barnabus Collins comes back to 1972 fairly screams humorous potential. Somehow the writer(s) could not find enough going on in that year at which to poke fun. (Which is a strange occurrence in itself.)  How could a writer not be able to inject political humor into this beast with the Watergate break-in being in the news? As the surly teen, Carolyn, watches TV news couldn’t Depp have something clever put in his mouth (besides the obligatory canines) like a timely (and somewhat suggestive) reference to ‘deep throat?’ 1972 saw the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment (surprising in light of today’s attempts to backtrack on this progress) so couldn’t the very male Barnabus reference his superiority to Angelique (Eva Green) in a clever way of course. And what about George “segregation forever” Wallace? Barnabus could find himself with three silver bullets as he comes into a room confronted with four real bad guys:  a Nazi war criminal, Idi Amin, George Wallace, and the inventor of the jump suit; our hero wastes not a minute dispatching Wallace – unloading all three bullets into the southern ‘guvna’.

1972 was a year of real film making, what about the movie The Godfather? Vito Corleone meets Barnabus Collins, or Eastwood’s Dirty Harry? And for the frightening random violence of A Clockwork Orange – make it less so by getting Barnabus in there to show who’s boss. And let us not forget The Brady Bunch, a TV series known to kill bricks – (and should still be held for crimes against television-watching humanity) yet not one mention. Come on DS writers, this stuff practically writes itself.   And what was up with Alice Cooper? All the deadly, spooky makeup in the world couldn’t stop that insipid music coming from this guy. The only positive thing I can say here is at least he had the courage to play himself. This takes some of the heat off the writers.

If the year were not interesting enough for DS writers, couldn’t they have livened up the competition for the best fishing fleet in Maine by, say, having Barnabus (unable to secure men to fish) going out on one of the boats hypnotizing the fish right into the boat? Couldn’t Barnabus mesmerize the town and highlight the power of money to assuage all fears of vampires, werewolves and ’57 Chevy wagons? And the sex scene… Really?

Call this Monday morning quarterbacking, or governing politics from the comfort of a television news studio but the cinematic bulls-eye was missed with Burton’s Dark Shadows. I would have preferred a closing scene of driving (the ’57 Chevy wagon) into the red-orange sunset past a sign of George McGovern waving under the caption “Y’all are gonna miss me when I’m gone.”  True that.

WAR HORSE: In praise of Schmaltz

                                                                                                                                                                    I was impressed by some of the promotions of  the Broadway play War Horse; the wicker puppet horses that exuded a Lion King feeling though in much more dire circumstance. So I am not sure what I expected from Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse.  But the story of War Horse is not a new one and like human nature the camaraderie that can exist between animal and man can take many permutations. And Spielberg gives it to us in spades. After five minutes of the story I was on the verge of feeling cheated. Hadn’t I been animated by the themes involving the power of love and  love conquering the unconquerable  in the many Lassie movies and the TV show? This is Steven Spielberg, the man who gave us Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and Munich – all stories that pulled the curtain back on the wizard. Stories that gave pause to consider the questions of God, free will and the vile temper that can run deep within the breast of the human animal. What’s he doing treading the emotional road too-well trodden? I took a deep breath before suspending judgment.  Yes, “pure schmaltz,” was my reaction upon leaving the theatre and a woman waiting on her husband claimed she felt the same way but added, “in a good way.” She is right. A heartfelt story to occupy the heart is just what we  need. Now, today – in 2012.

From the very opening scene, I was struck with visuals of a lush and verdant English countryside replete with a mare giving birth then frolicking across the hillside with her young stallion foal. I settled into the movie made comfortable with expansive panoramas and life affirming human and animal nature. I found myself considering the job of color-timer – the person later in the post-production process whose job it is to balance the color, tone and density of a film. It is a job that is usually noticed for its annoyance when there are shifts or bounces in color as a film progresses from scene to scene.  Not so with War Horse.  I was wrapped in a blanket of greens, tweeds, dun earth and rich sunsets that moved seamlessly from the first dramatic moment to the last.

Life lessons abound in War Horse. There are lessons in courage, selflessness,  what it means to be a real man and the ubiquitous battle between the haves and have-nots.  Joey, the war horse is sold (his ownership changes hands more than a few times after this) in a bidding war to Albert’s father a Boer War veteran struggling to maintain his farm and family. Once the long-suffering wife scolds her husband for spending too much money on a thoroughbred rather than a draft horse, the emotional trajectory of this film is obvious with the time-honored theme of Eric Knight’s 1938 short story and later novel, Lassie Come Home. Like the entire Lassie franchise, Spielberg also wrings every human/animal bonding cliché from every scene.   In spite of cliché, this theme works for War Horse just as it did in reality. According to writer Nigel Clarke,

the original Lassie who inspired so many films and television episodes was a rough-haired crossbreed who saved the life of a sailor during World War I. Half collie, Lassie was owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat, a pub in the port of Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day in 1915, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Formidable was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. One of the ship’s life rafts, containing many bodies, was blown by gales along the coast and was washed ashore in Dorset. The bodies were laid out on the table of the local pub. The pub dog, Lassie, began to lick one sailor’s feet, and someone noticed the man was reacting to it—so they revived him.

This was life awaiting art (enter Hollywood) to validate the experience. Suspending disbelief is good for the soul. It provides a delicious alternative to the certainties of life today – for as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow the political landscape will continue to offer podiums for patriotic scoundrels conferring the blessings of improper gods. Children will make life-altering decisions out of starvation and necessity. A mother will make choices that in sunnier times would seem unthinkable but now – hauntingly probable. This is a world where the transitive verb, occupy now does double duty as a noun. War Horse is a movie that allows the viewer to address the issues of the human heart and run free when the heart is held hostage to what seems to be man’s congenital desire for war.  On the back of Joey we can escape the many handlers who do what they have to do to keep the war machine alive. The scene in which the horse is actually able to bring two sides together is antithetical to the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan – there is no blood just one English and one German soldier cutting free the horse from yards of barbed wire. Even these characters are given enough intellect to acknowledge the irony of their duties.  “We’ll be fighting in a few hours…” the Englishman in his thanks for the German offered wire cutters.  Joey is free and in a coin toss returns to the  English trenches unknowingly passing a gas-blind Albert being treated in a front line Red Cross facility. It is Albert’s well-known whistle that saves the badly injured horse from destruction. Cue John Williams and his mounting crescendo when long-lost horse meets his loving now blind master on the WW I battle field. This could have been the end to a very sweet movie.  But no – Spielberg has more emotion to wring from us. Such as the return of the grandfather of the beautiful yet sickly little French girl (into whose hands Joey fell when his two German deserter handlers were shot for their troubles)  who walks three days to the  auction of all English military property at the war’s end. In a show of love and good-will Albert’s entire unit pools their pounds to purchase Joey for Albert but it is not enough to compete with the grandfather who wants the horse to remember his now dead granddaughter. What is a heart to feel?  The granddaughter was so sweet and precocious that we want the horse to go to the grieving old man. But then there’s Albert, he’d been blinded by mustard gas in service to his country and we are happy he can see now so, “gee, let the soldier have his horse old man.” And the grandfather relents. It is what the young, beautiful and precocious girl would have wanted.

Albert returns home in the most touching and emotional scene in the entire movie. Mom and dad are in the garden unaware of the silhouette on horseback moving across the horizon. Mom puts her hand to her eyes prolonging the dramatic irony – it could be anybody riding up to the farm but we know who it is. This lasts long enough for both mother and father to come to full recognition of their son and then –  group hug. Big – group hug.  Joey is left to display his great profile for us to admire. The rich, fire-inducing sunset backdrop screamed Gone With the Wind and the moment when Scarlet falls to the red earth of Tara and screams, “as God is my witness I’ll never go hungry again…” Seriously, I indulged in a claymation visual of Joey the horse laying on the ground at the gate furiously pounding a many-scarred hoof neighing, “as God is my witness I’ll never go to war again.”

Yes, pure schmaltz. But schmaltz never tasted so good.

CONTAGION: Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood

Cinematic themes featuring a world done in by some uncontrollable force – Godzilla,   Disturbing the universe meteorites, nuclear weapons and, in the case of Contagion,  virus, are not new. Although, Contagion does take our collective fear of a pandemic and brings that fear home in a very realistic manner. This threat is not wrapped in the guise of some cute-faced monkey (think Hot Zone) but rather it arrives on a beautiful (if unfaithful) host from it its Asian swine/bat origin. This virus is off and running throughout the world population in the first half hour of the film and, until the end, we can only guess at the virus’s epicenter or day-one of its cycle. The reality of such a disaster coming as the peace, love and happiness generation enters old age seems deceptively unimportant and begs the question, what remains of this world for Matt Damon, Kate Winslett and Gwynneth Paltrow – the beautiful representatives  of the generation to follow? Well, death of course (for some).   According to Dr. Paul A. Offit of Medscape Today, Steven Soderberg’s production has not sacrificed “science in favor of drama.” Contagion’s realism carries a cautionary note. And while I didn’t leave the theatre in immediate search of hand sanitizer I did attempt to count the times I rubbed my eyes.

Contagion did what a good movie should do – educate. As part of the scientifically uninitiated, I came away understanding rates of viral spreading. The ubiquitous numbers and web-like connections were made comprehensible by putting in perspective this virus’s contagion rate compared to diseases like polio and influenza. I learned too the role of fomites.  A fomite is a means of transmission – that is – any contaminated surface or inanimate thing, (clothing, dishes, doorknobs, telephones, money) once touched, can and did permit rapid spread of this deadly virus.  Soderberg’s montage of Paltrow’s final days drive home the tragic consequences of social and cultural obliviousness. I saw a side of Paltrow that I never want to see again.  Contagion’s backdrop of boarded up houses, lanes of traffic heading one way, and lines of ragged, cold and hungry people waiting for an untested vaccine speaks for itself. One scene provided frightening detail of how society will break down in the face of hopelessness. When the long line of sick and healthy alike are told the allotment of an herbal remedy has been exhausted, it comes as no surprise that people, utterly deprived of hope, will return to the sewers of their baser instincts. Pharmacies are smashed and looted, grocery stores hold only what can’t be consumed, and people are killed as their homes are raided. Even the home of Laurence Fishburne, the CDC official, is broken into by masked looters looking for any of the vaccine. It is here I wondered about the total breakdown of authority. If the breakdown was as complete as implied why would these trespassers wear masks? Old habits die hard I suppose.

The virus gets top billing in Contagion with Winslett, Paltrow, Damon, Fishburne and Elliot Gould doing the grunt work of surviving, dying and breaking all the rules to find the antidote. Dr. Sanjay Gupta offers a bit of realism as he interviews Fishburne, the CDC official thrown under the bus for being human. Fishburne’s character finds its foil in Alan Krumwiede played by Jude Law. Law’s character comes with a penchant for promotion of the pseudo-cure Forsythia.  The connection between the idea of Forsythia as a cure and the idea of Forsythia as a money making tool is a bit fuzzy made so by Law’s paranoid and heart-felt acting on behalf of the unproven homeopathic remedy.   Law’s political paranoia comes dressed as passionate righteousness in the form of his blog “Truth Serum.” This is Glenn Beck territory sans the tears. Law’s character irresponsibly yells government conspiracy and his legions fall in line lock-step with the theory.  Contagion holds important questions that, in the case of real Krumwiede-type citizens, should be answered now – not in a time of widespread panic. Is blogging journalism? Or is blogging, as one character implies, just speech with punctuation? Also, and most importantly for professional journalists, is it unfair to expect some sense of journalistic propriety here?   Krumwiede has millions of followers and he is, in a sense, screaming fire in a crowded theatre. Conceivably, millions of lives depend on his relationship with the written word. Alas, for Krumwiede, blogging is simply a narcissistic venture that smothers all truth.

There was hope to be had by the end of Contagion– even as panic dances on the slender fomite thread of ignorance. Trust in science is a huge message here. Today, trust in human nature may seem at an all-time low, but one cannot rule out the potential reality of individual humans willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice for the furtherance of the species.  I left the theatre rubbing my eyes and considering how rapidly society has changed. In my day, a half million people could gather, share music and fluids and no pandemic. Now, a forest is disturbed and an ancient virus is vexed to new life.