A historic epic from Steven Spielberg carries a lot of baggage, but he surprises us with a remarkably contained approach to an iconic figure. What's most unexpected is that this is a political drama, not a biopic. It's a long, talky movie about back-room deal-making on a very big issue: ending slavery in America. It also has one of the most intelligent, artful scripts of the past year, plus a remarkably wry central performance.
Daniel Day-Lewis constantly grounds Abraham Lincoln in his earthy humanity, good humour and tenacious desire to do the right thing, no matter what it takes. The film essentially covers just one month in which Lincoln works to outlaw slavery before ending four years of civil war. Secretary of State Seward (Strathairn) reluctantly supports this plan, enlisting three shady negotiators (Spader, Nelson and Hawkes) to convince wavering members of Congress to vote in favour of a constitutional amendment. Meanwhile at home, Lincoln is under pressure from his wife Mary (Field) to keep their oldest son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) off the battlefield.
All of this political wrangling makes the film feel like a 19th century version of The West Wing, and Kushner's script crackles with wit, nuance and passion, clearly echoing today's political debates about issues like gun control and human rights. We find ourselves wishing that our own politicians were this creative about getting the votes they need on important issues. This meaty approach gives the cast terrific dialog to bite into, although Spielberg never lets anyone run riot with scenery-chomping antics. The closest is probably Jones, as the fiery anti-slavery supporter Thaddeus Stevens. He's terrific in this role. And Field shines too in as the spiky Mary. Even if she's about a decade too old for the character, she brings intelligence and emotion to every scene.
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Tony Kushner - Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori New York City, USA - Opening night after party for the Lincoln Center Theater Broadway production of 'A Free Man of Color' held at Avery Fisher Hall Thursday 18th November 2010
What makes Munich even more ambitious than films like List or even Empire of the Sun is that it's not as recognizable a film as those classically-structured epics. This film is part spy thriller and part meditation on violence but not completely either. The result comes out as somewhat scrambled by the end, with the pieces of about a half-dozen lesser movies mixed around inside, but there's rarely a moment when it's not grabbing you by the collar and demanding your undivided attention. We should have more of this kind of thing.
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Part one, "Millennium Approaches" is full of ominous portents, plague and destruction, the rampant spread of AIDS in the chilly clime of '80s conservatism, while the second, "Perestroika" makes the political issues bandied about earlier in the film devastatingly personal. The story runs from 1985 to 1990 and takes in a broad sweep of characters, but not nearly as many as other writers would have packed in, simply to give a broader demographic sampling. Central to the film is Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), a 30-year-old AIDS sufferer whose boyfriend Louis (Ben Shenkman) leaves him in an astonishingly heartless manner, only to take up soon after with recently uncloseted U.S. attorney Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson). Left mostly to his own devices, with only his friend Belize (Jeffery Wright) to help, as Walter gets sicker, he begins to have visions of an angel (Emma Thompson, odd, arrogant and completely captivating), determined to make him a prophet, claiming that God has deserted the world and that humans are at fault.
Continue reading: Angels In America Review