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Film reviews: Lincoln | Boxing Day | Surviving Progress

A night at the theatre for Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and the president (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Lincoln

A night at the theatre for Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and the president (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Lincoln

  • by ALISTAIR HARKNESS
 

DESPITE the title, Steven Spielberg’s multi-Oscar nominated Lincoln isn’t a wide-ranging, all-encompassing biopic of America’s 16th president.

Lincoln (12A)

Directed by: steven spielberg

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones

***

Instead it’s a stately account of the behind-the-scenes legislative drama that Abraham Lincoln had to negotiate to get the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment passed through Congress before the four-year Civil War’s imminent end.

That’s both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand it means the film mercifully avoids becoming yet another worthy biopic determined to cram in every flash-point moment of his life. On the other hand, by contracting its scope to the final four months of the Civil War (and, as it turned out, Lincoln’s own life), the dramatic impetus of this against-the-clock structure gets lost in a miasma of dry, detailed, school syllabus-friendly historical re-enactments of men standing around in rooms talking and arguing.

What they’re talking and arguing about is Lincoln’s moral need to bring a legal end to slavery in the United States. He knows that a cessation of the fighting will likely rob the abolitionist cause of much of the support it has gained from those who view an amendment to the Constitution as the quickest way force the South to surrender. The political jujitsu he has to deploy to get the amendment passed thus becomes the film’s focal point.

Alas, as interesting as it is to see the way Lincoln’s core beliefs inform his consummate skills as a politician without being compromised in the process, watching endless-seeming debates between anti-slavery Republican white men and pro-slavery Democratic white men is not quite as thrilling.

That said, Daniel Day-Lewis does make a fine Lincoln. Elegant and poised, he gives a sense of the President’s imposing stature without dominating the frame the way he did in, say, There Will Be Blood. The make-up team has thankfully gone easy on the prosthetics too, and his voice – soft and measured, with a folksy rasp – only occasionally descends into the expected declamatory speechifying. It’s just a shame that everyone else – a showboating Tommy Lee Jones as progressive Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Sally Field as Lincoln’s hysterical wife Mary, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as their eldest son Robert – seem like they’re part of the Lincoln exhibit at Disneyland. But that’s a problem of the film as a whole. It’s an impeccably crafted history lesson that, unusually for a Spielberg film, tells us why its subject matter is important, instead of engaging with it on an emotional level.

Boxing Day (15)

Directed by: bernard rose

Starring: Danny Huston, Matthew Jacobs, Lisa Enos

****

Brit director Bernard Rose teams up for a third time with Danny Huston for yet another modern-day, American-set adaptation of a Tolstoy classic.

Following the caustic Ivansxtc (based on The Death of Ivan Ilyich) and his claustrophobic adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, Boxing Day transposes the short story Master and Man to the snowy climes of Denver and turns it into an insightful modern day morality tale of greed, opportunism and friendship.

Huston plays Basil, a Los Angeles-based property speculator who leaves his family the day after Christmas in order to fly to Colorado to investigate a bunch of foreclosed homes he thinks he might be able to flip for a profit. Driven around by Nick (Matthew Jacobs), a British limo driver with a troubled past, he’s too obsessed with getting the jump on his competitors to give much consideration to the morality of what he’s doing or, indeed, the ominous weather he and Nick are driving through.

The film unfurls through a series of brilliantly staged and intensely uncomfortable interactions between the supercilious Basil and the grating Nick. Individually repellent, together they make a fascinating and utterly compelling double act, one that taps into the need to forge genuine connections.

Won’t Back Down (PG)

Directed by: daniel barnz

Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter

**

This button-pushing US teaching drama received the dubious honour of becoming the lowest grossing wide-release movie in history when it opened in America last year. Given the (oversimplified) specifics of the unionised US education system it’s railing against, the one-note characters populating the “inspired by true events” storyline, and the fact that it’s rubbish, its British prospects do not look much improved.

This is despite the efforts of co-leads Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The latter plays Jamie, a struggling, blue-collar single mother whose daughter’s dyslexia is being exacerbated by her attendance at a failing, union-protected school full of lazy, union-protected teachers. Davis, meanwhile, plays Nona, one of the school’s few remaining conscientious members of staff, a ground-down teacher who still wants to take pride in her role as an educator, which in the reductive world of this movie makes her the teaching drama equivalent of the “Good German” in an old-school war movie.

Following both as they team up and try to rally enough parents to take over the school and turn things around, the film becomes a sort of mums-on-a-mission movie, with Jamie and Nona leading the fight to free their government-failed children from the tyranny of the teaching unions once and for all. As terrible as it sounds.

Surviving Progress (12A)

Directed by: Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks

***

This latest documentary clarion call about destructive impact we’re having on the planet takes the form of an inquiry into the downside of human progress. Building on Canadian author Ronald Wright’s concept of a “progress trap” (a solution to a problem that ultimately creates more long-lasting damage), directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks assemble an array of experts, writers, scientists and economists to make the case for slowing down ingenuity to a pace that will allow its impact on the planet to be assessed.

Deforestation in the Amazon, the 2008 financial crash and the devastating consequences of third world debt are just some of the examples used to highlight the debilitating effects of our collective achievements as a species. Meanwhile, the enthusiasm for genetic engineering advancements as a possible way of helping us survive future environmental calamities is presented as the latest blind faith solution that’s likely to hasten our demise even faster. Persuasively argued in places, the film never really gets beyond the surface. That, however, may also be the point. The film offers basic, practical and obvious ideas for moving forward, which makes the symbolism of bookending the film with a simple problem-solving experiment involving chimps and building blocks hard to miss: we’re perhaps not as smart in a practical sense as our less evolved simian cousins.

 

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