Movie Review >> Oscar Bait, Part One: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook

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Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln gets off to a shaky start; after (what is for Spielberg) a rather perfunctory Civil War battle scene, various Union soldiers, black and white, talk to a seated, pensive President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) about the war, injustice, equality, and the speech they’ve all taken to heart, …you know, The Gettysburg Address.

After this superfluous, clumsy attempt to acquaint us with both Lincoln and the issues that weighed on him, the movie finds its dramatic footing in its retelling of how Lincoln, in January of 1865, and with the help of a few friends (and some bellicose adversaries) pushed the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment which would formally abolish slavery in the United States.  The narrative recounts in great (if not altogether historically accurate) detail about how Lincoln initially distanced himself from the  questionable measures used to gain Democratic support (these are expertly handled by the equally scruffy James Spader and John Hawkes) until forced to, as one might say, get his hands dirty, in the form of promises and compromises.  Meanwhile on the domestic front, our hero has to cope with a needy, crafty, and very emotional Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) and a prodigal son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who has some disquieting news for his concerned parents.  To Spielberg’s credit, there is a vitality to the staging and pacing that elevates what could have been a talking-heads piece (and one which you presumably know the ending) into a visually arresting, absorbing film.

Adapted by Tony Kushner from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Lincoln simultaneously tries to burnish the legend while providing a grounded, more realistic view of the frequently exalted statesman.  To Spielberg’s credit, there is a vitality to the staging and pacing (for the most part), that elevates what could have been a talking-heads piece (and one which you presumably know the ending) into a visually arresting, absorbing film.  Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, with a slightly higher-pitched voice than we’re used to in Lincoln (it’s like a blend of Walter Brennan and Royal Dano), is given plenty of opportunities to display the various shades of Lincoln– and he does so in a bravura manner.  Day-Lewis superbly depicts Lincoln’s folksy, humorous, dawdling, rustic side as he regales his staff with stories quite possibly told before; the anger and anguish when dealing with his frequently hysterical Mary ( an excellent Sally Field) or disillusioned son Robert (an OK Gordon- Levitt, but his is a subplot that could easily have been discarded); the cunning determination in his closed door dealings with both Republican allies and  Democratic adversaries (including a former Lincoln himself in Hal Holbrook).  As good as Day-Lewis is, you might walk out thinking of Tommy Lee Jones’ towering portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, an ardent abolitionist who is forced to temper his beliefs in order to even come close to achieving his ream of racial equality.  If there is a moment of real suspense in the film, it is the scene where he has to withstand some overt political pressure from some very vocal Democrats.  It’s his crisis of conscience, powerfully embodied by Mr. Jones, that becomes the dramatic heart of Lincoln.

silver linings - playbookI’m not sure whether David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a bipolar case study masquerading as a romantic comedy—or the other way around.  All I know is I liked it in spite of some initial misgivings (such as how did anyone think Bradley Cooper’s character should have released from an institution in the first place).  The movie follows Cooper’s somewhat delusional Pat as he tries to get his life back together (he has been institutionalized for beating the heck out of his wife’s lover in the shower—as their wedding song, My Cherie Amour, was playing—this song functions as Cooper’s “Niagara Falls, Slowly I Turned” trigger throughout) while in the home of his excitable, superstitious father and enabling mother (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver).  After some fairly disastrous mishaps, Cooper finds someone almost as fouled up as he is: a young, attractive, bitter widow (Jennifer Lawrence) with a similar lack of filter in her observations, and a seemingly bewildering need to befriend him.   And everyone’s happiness becomes tied to the outcome of a dance competition and a Philadelphia Eagles game. As I’m writing this, I’m asking myself …why did I like Silver Linings Playbook …the tone shifts a little too often (and implausibly), the ending is a little predictable.  Yet the persuasive playing of the leads (and the supporting cast for that matter) is enough to carry one…past the goal line, if you will.   Robert DeNiro contributes his most colorful, forceful work in years as Cooper’s angry, perplexed father, while Jacki Weaver does nice work as a very long-suffering wife.  Chris Tucker makes a welcome return as a fellow inmate who may or may not have been legitimately released; Bradley Cooper is likable and sympathetic even when engaging in the most antisocial behavior; last but not least, Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful as a brittle, abrasive example of a wounded soul who realizes that, as dysfunctional as they both are, they remain each other’s best hope for happiness.  If there is a happy ending, one feels it is well-earned.