Definitive Portraits

LincolnLincoln (2012)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Tony Khusner

Cinematography by: Janusz Kamiński

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

Rating: A-

Political poetry. As an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, Spielberg crafts an extensive and intimate portrayal of not just the President, but everything and everyone that surrounds him. There’s something mythical about watching the Grand Old Party truly live up to its name and potential. The writing is sharp, smart, and never afraid to show it’s teeth; both, when it’s taking a bite out of government, and when it’s smiling upon the process. It’s about as close to a political junkie’s love letter as you can get in 1865.

You cannot help but relish in every word spoken by any actor on this film; and while there is no end to the magnificent performances on display, the first star absolutely must go to Daniel Day-Lewis, who carries this film in its most dense, and perhaps more importantly, in its more quiet moments. There are moments where Lincoln, the man, but also the film itself, just exists, and allows for the audience to just absorb themselves into the proceedings. Day-Lewis nails his performance, from the voice to the mannerisms; so much so, that I wouldn’t even call it a performance. It’s a downright embodiment. A definitive portrayal. Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones, who brings a passion and fire to this film that I haven’t seen in quite some time. Sally Field is never a disappointment, and her portrayal of Mary Todd is effectively restrained, and subtle, even when the character’s feelings are anything but. There’s honestly not a bad actor in the bunch, and that applies to just about anyone who shows up on the screen, from Joseph Gordon Levitt, to David Strathairn, to Hal Holbrook, and even James Spader.

It almost seems like a no-brainer to have Steven Spielberg tackle the 16th President’s journey in figuring out how to both end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment, given his amazing ability to present history on screen, starting with Empire of the Sun (1987),and continuing with Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Munich (2005). He adds yet another to his repertoire with Lincoln. Political poetry. I could think of nothing else as I watched Spielberg introduce the audience to a time period in which gridlock in Washington did not mean the absolute failure of politics, but more importantly, it did not mean the demise of our nation.

The Master

The Master (2012)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cinematography by: Mihai Mălaimare, Jr.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour
Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

Rating: A-

This is a film that will be tough to pinpoint for many. For some, it’ll seem to cover a vast amount. For others, it’ll sometimes never cover anything at all. For some, it’ll be deeply profound experience. For others, it’ll never truly say anything that reflects so much as a simple thought. For me, the film explores the sheer power of faith; both, in bringing people together, but also, in becoming a driving force that can no longer be contained by not only its members, but its very founders.

I’ve seen this film twice, and I no doubt will continue to gain something from each repeat viewing. What I do know is that it’s absolutely mesmerizing when it wants to be; almost enigmatic, which is perhaps fair given its two leads: Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a self-made man who who creates a philosophy known simply as “the Cause;” and Freddie Quells (Joaquin Pheonix), a deeply damaged (and drunk) former Navy seaman who stumbles into Dodd’s presence and by nature, his Cause. The two men are clearly deserving of their own picture, but put them together, and you never want to leave their sight. These are career defining performances from two actors who have made their careers creating such performances. A nice surprise in the film comes from Amy Adams, portraying Dodd’s wife, who, on the surface, appears to be nothing more than a familial face for the Cause, but reveals herself to be every bit as commanding on the screen as Hoffman, being both supportive and worried about the Cause.

Paul Thomas Anderson has built quite the portfolio of films, and The Master, oddly enough, fits in nicely with the likes of Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and There Will Be Blood (2007). He’s a man that deeply understands the sheer power of cinema, and evokes performances that will be talked about for generations; but it’s not just the technical aesthetics he masters, it’s also the thematic. This is a film that is every bit as sporadic, intimate, and mysterious as its characters, but each piece is absolutely necessary in putting together a puzzle that may forever remain broken and never solved; of the human mind, of our faith (or lack thereof), and the continuing struggle to make sense of either.

From the battlefields, lost at sea, we return home to discover we’re at civil war with ourselves; that as the tides changed while we were away, our minds changed while we remained, no longer the masters of our own destiny, beholden to any country.