Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Four Score and Seven Years in Line
I got to see two pretty good movies tonight at the New York Film Festival, and it's nice to remind myself of how much my 20-year-old self would shit if he knew I'd be able to have nights like this.
First up was the Secret Screening, which everybody knew was going to be Lincoln, not that I wasn't holding out hope until the very last that it would end up being something riot-inducing like Breaking Dawn Part II or the one with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. The situation at Lincoln Center was bedlam and stupid and we waited forever for them to seat anybody, and since I knew they were confiscating phones at the door, I left mine in my office, and the stark realization that I had NO WAY OF CONTACTING ANYONE IF I HAD TO made my blood run cold. But eventually we got seated, right in front of Scott Rudin, which was exciting even though he didn't threaten to break anyone's arms or anything. But Whoopi Goldberg DID come by his seat to say hello. Also, I was certain that the old lady who took approximately 20 minutes to walk past half our row to get to the bathroom was Joan Didion, but no one will back me up on this. Anyway, that was the celebrity portion of my evening.
Lincoln was ... interesting, which I mean as a compliment. It means well, and it tries to tell an American story that has calcified into legend in a way that engages the brain (in many ways it plays like an 1860s The West Wing, which will frustrate some viewers more than it did me) and the heart. The latter is only sporadically successful. I liked the way Spielberg balanced the passion of those seeking to abolish slavery while acknowledging that this was still a battle fought by white men whose concern for actual black people was outweighed by politics and a desire to end the war. It's a worthy avenue to go down, and the movie is strongest when it keeps this in mind.
But this is also the real world and a movie about Abraham Lincoln by America's preeminent crowd-pleasing storyteller, so obviously political strategy wasn't going to be allowed to stand on its own. Unfortunately, all the Lincoln At Home scenes fall flat, particularly the ones with a flailing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son. Meanwhile, Sally Field gives a schizophrenic performance that maybe suits Mary Todd Lincoln if you want to be generous about it. She has one highly entertaining scene with Tommy Lee Jones, but everything else is dripping in melodrama. (Tommy Lee Jones, by the way, is the star of the show, serving Grumpy Old Man perfection and earning a mid-movie ovation from the audience. Supporting Actor nomination for sure, and he could even win in a weak field.)
If I haven't mentioned Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln yet, it's because he's easily the fifth or sixth thing that stands out about the movie. It's a strong performance that carves out a well-defined Lincoln -- folksy storyteller, shrewd politician, unavoidably aloof on the home front -- and the voice becomes a total nonissue right from the beginning. It's also exactly as expected. It's a problem with the movie, too -- it's so certain of its own outcomes, both historically and narratively. Everybody in the movie acts with full knowledge of the historical import of their actions. Which is a fully supportable take on a time period where it's not that hard to imagine people would have an idea that they were living in legendary times. But if the audience is already fully aware of the result, the interesting part becomes the HOW, and too often, Speilberg feels the need to goose the WHAT of it. We can't possibly be asked to sit in suspense at the roll-call vote for the 13th Amendment as if we've all got our fingers crossed it'll pass.
After the Lincoln obstacle course, I stuck around for Sally Potter's Ginger and Rosa, starring Elle Fanning, a puzzlingly-accented Christina Hendricks, and Jane Campion's daughter who looks like my favorite girl from Bunheads. The movie is a pretty standard soap plot, glazed with some period-specific Cold War anxiety, but the performances (Fanning especially) pull it across the finish line. Also, I guess Annette Bening is just going to keep playing these broad, crowd-pleasing side characters until she decides to go for another Oscar, huh?