Wednesday, December 26, 2012


I guess I had to see this after having the deep misfortune to have viewed "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter".  Also, despite living a post-Christmas world, I haven't really seen all that much Oscar Bait this year.  There was "Cloud Atlas" but that was far too experimental and divisive for the Academy to even consider.  So let's go with a director who is guaranteed to be nominated for just about everything:  Steven Spielberg.

A lot of people really hated last year's "War Horse" for being sappy and melodramatic.  If you wanted a perfect paint by numbers example of pure cynical Oscar Bait then you'd want to see "J. Edgar"... however "War Hose" was a nicely cynical attempt that somehow managed to sneak in a bit of real movie magic.  "J. Edgar" had all the artistry of a "Transformers" movie, but was better at fooling people.  "War Hose" actually had some very pretty shots and sequences, along with some very likable characters*, but obviously it was not Steven Spielberg's best work.  But if you're looking for something that actually is Stephen Spielberg's best movie that does not involve monsters, Indiana Jones, aliens, or WWII, "Lincoln" would probably be it.  Despite taking place just about 150 years ago, "Lincoln" may be the most politically relevant movie to come out this year, with at least the most important message.  If only the Democrats and Republicans right now would only watch this movie of complex political bartering and semi-corrupt double dealing from our nation's greatest president, maybe we could finally get something done.

The brilliance of "Lincoln" is that is it not a massive biopic that depicts Abraham Lincoln's entire life from cradle to Ford's Theater.  Instead the movie is focused nearly entirely in January 1865, dealing primarily with Lincoln's desperate attempts to get the Thirteenth Amendment, one of the most important political events in American history, passed while slowly setting the stage for the Union's ultimate victory over the Confederacy.  The movie almost entirely takes place in Washington DC in the White House or the Capitol building.  Many of Lincoln's most important moments such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or the Gettysburg Address (which is recited to Lincoln by several soldiers), occur in the backstory and are left out of the film.  Instead its a far more concise, focused story on just one of Lincoln's many triumphs, which was the correct move.  Abraham Lincoln's entire life would have needed an entire trilogy equal in scale to "The Hobbit" and years of work to depict his impressive life theatrically.  Spielberg chose one of Lincoln's greatest accomplishments - an accomplishment that took place in the dirty, unsavory, and corrupt world of horse trading politics.  And somehow despite showing Lincoln at his most corrupt, he still manages to come off as the same saint-like figure that we were taught about in school.  However, he is somehow even more impressive of a historical figure because we see his darker side and all that he had to overcome in order to achieve his great works.

There is considerable friendly debate among historians as to who the greatest President of the United States was, but Lincoln will inevitably always be among the top candidates**.  Unless you're tragically ignorant or a lunatic, you would cherish Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest Americans and look upon his presidency as having saved this country from its darkest hour.  He destroyed the horrific institution of slavery, defeated Southern nationalism forever thus overcoming the last great hurtle to America's growth into a World Power, secured the supremacy of the federal government over the states, and began the long difficult tradition of expanding political rights and freedoms to all groups of this nation, not just to White Men.  Many have called Lincoln to be the last of our Founding Fathers, redefining what America was while holding America together through its most difficult and bloodiest military conflict.  All of this is real important political drama which will be remembered throughout the ages.

And it was perfectly fine without him fighting goddamn vampires.  Again, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter", worst damn movie of the year.  Not only unwatchably awful, but completely trounced by a real movie, which is what we have here.

Daniel Day-Lewis is tasked with playing Lincoln, and as Daniel-Day Lewis always does, he has completely engrossed himself in the role.  Day-Lewis typically makes a huge deal about completely becoming every one of his great roles, usually spending years preparing to be entirely absorbed in his new persona.  You can see this in Day-Lewis' great roles such as Bill the Butcher from "Gangs of New York" or Daniel Plainview from "There Will be Blood", two hammy psychos from the 1800s.  Day-Lewis' Lincoln is perfectly authentic, with the country twang, the clever quips, and the long fatherly stories.  He works as something of a goofy jokester, yet somehow in his understated manner manages to command a difficult divided coalition of forces to victory.  Obviously great pains were given for historical accuracy, and you would have to be a serious Lincoln expert to catch historical goofs, which could only be minor.  Especially in an industry that usually depicts history with a horrible love triangle in the middle of Pearl Harbor or something, "Lincoln" is pretty remarkable, and Daniel Day-Lewis deserves every credit for his achievement.

The entire cast is great, though.  Sally Field manages to create a Mary Todd Lincoln with all her many complexities and neurosis, but somehow still remains a proud figure.  Spielberg does well by allowing Mary Todd to retain her dignity rather than turning her into a one-dimensional crazy cartoon character.  David Strathairn is Lincoln's right hand man, William Seward, who is almost constantly at Lincoln's side, recreating the dynamic coupling that was Lincoln and Seward.  For comic relief, a massively bloated James Spader plays a double-dealing Washington shyster who is hired by Lincoln to sway several Democrats towards voting for the Thirteenth Amendment.  Oddly though, the best performance comes from Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican with extremely enlightened racial views.  Tommy Lee Jones is an old man, so I understand now why he looked like he was going to fall asleep during the otherwise excellent "Men in Black 3".  He was saving up all his energy for "Lincoln", so that he could scream at racist Democrats across the halls of Congress.  Everybody is supposed to praise Daniel Day-Lewis for yet another great method acting triumph, but honestly, Tommy Lee Jones somehow manages to steal the show.

The plot, as I previously stated, is simply Lincoln trying to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed in House of Representatives, that House of Congress where all the difficulty always seems to reside.  With the Civil War now winding down, Lincoln can see that slavery is at its weakest now than its ever been.  There could be a chance that the South could surrender, and the issue of slavery could get simply ignored leaving their vile Antebellum slave economy in place, and possibly leading to a second Civil War.  The 1864 elections have just concluded, but there are many Lame Duck Democrats in Congress who could potentially obstruct the passage of this Constitutional measure until the ending of the war***.  This is potentially the only moment Lincoln will have in order to bring together a coalition to destroy slavery in the United States forever.  However, even during the dark days of the Civil War and Lincoln's consolation of more power and authority in the Executive than any President before or since, Lincoln still needs to unite many different men with many different views as to how Post-War America should look.  Thaddeus Stevens leads the Radical Republicans, who are fully behind killing slavery, but also want to give equal rights to African Americans and rip the South apart to give land to the freed slaves****.  Lincoln can rely on them, but can't afford to scare away the Conservative Republicans, who merely wanted to break the South's political power and don't care about equal rights.  Or can he afford to scare away the few liberal democrats, or the Lame Duck Democrats who can be bought.

The main method by which Lincoln achieves his task is through the extremely questionably methods of directly lying to Congress and Patronage.  Patronage or if you were a muckraker newspaper man, "Graft", was the lubricant that made government function in the 19th century, allowing the Executive Branch to offer favors to all of their supports through offering them jobs all across the country.  So Lame Duck Democrats are offered Postmaster positions in Pennsylvania or other cushy positions with high paychecks and little work.  Graft in the Gilded Age would become a major political battle, even somehow costing the life of President James A. Garfield, but it was also the single most boring political debate in American history.  Still, "Lincoln" shows that even the ugliest of corruption has its place in American politics.  This is how it all functions, not through squabbles and grand speeches, but through backroom deals and bargains.  That's a bold cynical position for a political biopic to take, but "Lincoln" runs with it, and it becomes part of the movie's magic.  The other issue Lincoln has to deal with is the upcoming arrival of several Confederacy officials with offers of peace.  If this peace offer becomes known, Democrats might refuse to vote for the Amendment.  But if he outwardly rejects it, his Conservative Republicans might back out of the deal.  Abraham Lincoln has to pull off something like a sitcom double-lie maneuver as he convinces both of his dates at the prom that he's only there with one of them.

And in the end, even with all the lies, the Graft, and the maneuvering, the system works.  The Amendment is passed, Good wins out, and the war is won.

Unfortunately, "Lincoln" has a way of continuing far too long.  I figure any "Lincoln" biopic requires us to see Abraham Lincoln die at Ford's Theater, and audiences would feel ripped-off if they did not get the emotional turmoil of seeing the character we've come to know and love during these two hours reach his tragic end.  However, I really don't think Lincoln's death was all that necessary for this movie.  We have that problem of epic movies where there are far too may endings, also known as Return of the King Syndrome.  Daniel Day-Lewis has a moment where he picks up his stovepipe hat and walks out into the ages and a fade-out, but yet somehow we still need to see another two or three endings before the credits actually roll.  I think we all knew where Lincoln was going in that fade out, we didn't need to see little Tad Lincoln freak out at the announcement of his father's death.

Of all the Oscarbait to see in 2012, "Lincoln" will probably be your best bet.  The emotions are real, Spielberg doesn't overwhelm you with melodramatic schmaltz, and it shows us all the ugliness and glory of our American political system.  Despite being Oscarbait, its actually a rather bold movie with a real message and a great acting and directing.  All around, this was one of the best movies of 2012.  And I'm aware I say the words "best movies of 2012", my Best Of List this year is going to be very long.

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" was a piece of shit, the people who made that movie should be ashamed of themselves.

* The little French girl and her grandpa should have been that entire movie.  Sadly no.

** Other candidates being both Roosevelts, Washington, Reagan if you watch Fox News, and any true historian would never allow a "Best President" debate to end without name dropping James K. Polk.

*** Until the Twentieth Amendment, Lame Duck sessions continued until March, which meant that lawmakers could stick around six months after getting beaten in the November elections.  This was somewhat freeing because lawmakers could vote with nothing but their conscious on matters, since they weren't trying to impress their voters anymore.  Or they could sit around and find the best way to make lots and lots of money with their time left, like many Lame Ducks do in "Lincoln".

**** In retrospect, the Radical Republicans were completely right about everything and anybody who opposed them were ignorant 19th century savages.  However, nobody could know that at the time.  They were ahead of their time, since civil rights opinions were deeply hated by most of the country.  What the Radical Republicans attempted to do in Reconstruction was as admirable as it was, in all likelihood, impossible.  The period after the Civil War, which saw the birth of an African American free class in the South, with respectful and successful businessmen, politicians, and works, only to have their rights and lives burned away by racist White Southerners is one of the great tragedies of American history.

I also have zero respect for the South's history.  Antebellum South sure looks nice in "Gone With the Wind", but it was actually a horrible place based on hideous corrupt and increasingly backwards economic systems, mainly slavery.  Southern pride is based on the love of a disgusting and awful period in American history.  From John C. Calhoun to Pickett's Charge to "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo", I honestly hate Southern culture and all the terrible harm its done to America.  Moonshine tastes like turpentine, NASCAR is the most boring goddamn "sport" I've ever seen, and fucking Larry the Cable Guy needs to be lynched.  However, Country music isn't bad.  You can keep that.


  1. I was wondering if you saw this movie. Not gonna lie I knew some of this dirty stuff was going down during the Civil War, but to actually see a director bring it to life blew my mind. I was on the edge of my seat the when ever they were having a Congress meeting (Can you tell how boring I am?). But if this movie doe's get nominations for an Oscar I really do hope they when SOMETHING.

    And to anyone who is thinking about going to the South: Don't do it! This place is corrupted up the wazoo. The only way you'll make it down here is if your rich or have ALOT of connections.


  2. I actually just saw Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter a few days ago, and you were absolutely right about it. My parents got it from Redbox before I could warn them about it, and then later apologized about mocking me for listening to critics.

    I live in Maryland, and I have to say that even the northernmost vestiges of the South are insufferable.

    Lastly, I've got an obscure movie recommendation for you to ignore: Six-String Samurai, the story of Buddy Holly's trek across the post-apocalyptic American Southwest in order to claim his throne as the King of Lost Vegas. It's basically what you'd get if you took Mad Max and infused it with the POWER OF ROCK!

    1. No, it's from 1998. It only got a limited theatrical release, but managed to gain a cult following in that time.

  3. Glad you enjoyed the movie. I, too, thought it was one of Spielberg's best in.. well.. at least a decade. Really shocking how the Oscar-bait is surprisingly very good. Les Miserables was fantastic!!

  4. James K. Polk really is an awesome president, he did everything he wanted to in one term and then was like, "fuck it, im out," such a cool dude, I'm glad you mention him in your top 5.