Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (wide release) doesn’t attempt to present a full biography of the 16th president, instead offering an epic-length dramatization of a single episode from the end of his tenure as the nation’s chief executive. This episode is his effort to get an amendment outlawing slavery passed by the House of Representatives, where it was being blocked by the Democratic opposition.
In laying out the details of the story, Spielberg does something one might not expect. He emphasizes Lincoln’s political wiliness, his willingness to use the patronage power of his office to secure votes from congressmen looking for jobs and influence. He’s even willing to put off meeting with a Confederate peace delegation because he fears the amendment would have no chance of passage after the war’s end. Such manipulation is an aspect of the president’s makeup that’s not often emphasized in popular portraits that have turned him into a sort of plaster saint.
That doesn’t mean that the profile the picture paints ignores the more hagiographic aspects of the textbook tradition. As played – brilliantly, as might be expected – by Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg’s Lincoln remains the folksy, humble man of destiny, worn down by personal tragedy and the burden of the war.
And the picture surrounds him with riveting figures, most notably his perpetually furious wife Mary, played with surprising intensity by Sally Field; radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, whom Tommy Lee Jones invests with the rage of a cunning old lion; and a trio of vote-getting operatives, exuberantly acted by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.
Lincoln is stately and reverential, and it has some serious flaws, such as a terrible opening sequence that clumsily sets the stage. But if it’s not a complete success as biography, as a portrait of crass political maneuvering employed in the service of high principle, it’s quite effective.
“A Royal Affair”
Another historical episode, from roughly a hundred years before the American Civil War, is dramatized in the elegant period drama A Royal Affair (Angelika).
The hero in this case is Johann Struensee, a German doctor steeped in Enlightenment thought who became court physician to King Christian VII of Denmark.
Struensee took advantage of his influence over the erratic, childlike monarch to encourage him to initiate reforms that reflected the thought of Voltaire and Rousseau. For more than a year he actually ran the Danish government, transforming what had been a backward realm into the unexpected engine of 18th-century progress.
Struensee’s rationalistic dream was derailed, however, by his own emotions. He entered into a relationship with Catherine Mathilde, Christian’s English-born wife, which lost him popular support and allowed a coup to succeed. It not only brought him down but led to his execution, and his reform program was swept aside.
A Royal Affair boasts beautiful locations, a fine cast and a literate script that poses the ultimate irony to Struensee’s career – that a man devoted to the life of pure reason was undone by the passions his beliefs condemned.
It’s Masterpiece Theatre with a brain.
“Breaking Dawn – Part 2”
The Twilight saga finally reaches its end with Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (wide release), which sees Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) a married vampire couple with a half-human, half-bloodsucker child they must defend against the threat posed by the dominant Volturi clan.
Happily they have some allies, including wolfman Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his pack of howling compatriots, Edward’s family, and a few other vampire pals.
It all ends in a big confrontation on a snow-swept mountain plain, with plenty of not-so-special effects to suggest massive bodily trauma, such as decapitation. That’s a bit of a cheat, however, since the script contrives for the filmmakers and the audience to have their cake and eat it too, savoring the violence without having to deal with its emotional implications.
The movie is marked by insipid dialogue and amateurish acting, but it’s still easily the best of the five installments, simply because it takes itself less seriously than its predecessors.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rejoice that Twilight has at last faded to dark.