Sunday, November 19, 2017

CRACKER? Lincoln (2012)

                “Lincoln” is not a war movie, but it is a Civil War movie.  It was directed by Steven Spielberg and was under development for about ten years.  Based on the Doris Kearns Godwin book Team of Rivals, which was about Lincoln and his cabinet, Spielberg was actually working on the movie before the book came out.  The screenplay was by Tony Kirshner who spent years researching the topic.  He took some artistic license as is to be expected, but his heart was in the right place.  Spielberg’s first choice for Lincoln was Daniel Day-Lewis but he declined the role.  Liam Neeson was tabbed, but after the movie was slow getting off the ground, he dropped out claiming he was now too old.  Day-Lewis then reconsidered.  He was rewarded with the Best Actor Academy Award.  The film also won for Production Design.  It was nominated for ten other awards including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Sally Field), and Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones).  “Lincoln” was a box office success and was critically acclaimed.  As a post script, one impact of the film was the final unanimous ratification of the 13th Amendment.  It seems that when Mississippi belatedly ratified it in 1995, the paperwork was not filed properly.  Prodding from two academicians caused the Mississippi Secretary of State to rectify the error in 2013.

                The movie covers the last four months of Lincoln’s life.  It concentrates on his quest to pass the 13th Amendment.  Although more famous for his Emancipation Proclamation, that Presidential edict did not actually end slavery.  It declared that the slaves in the Confederate-occupied South were free.  The 13th Amendment officially ended slavery, but it was not an easy sell to Congress.  Lincoln had to use all of his considerable political skills to get the amendment through the House of Representatives.  The film chronicles the machinations that led to the climactic vote.  Lincoln is a realpolitician who allows Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) to employ a trio of political operatives led by the earthy Bilbo (James Spader).  The trio prove that the “spoils system” was still alive and well in 1865.  Lincoln also allies with Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who believes that blacks deserve equality along with freedom.  Not all his colleagues in the House agree with his enlightened philosophy, as the spirited debates in the chamber depict.  There is plenty of 19th Century trash-talking.  In the midst of all this political maneuvering, there is a back-stairs at the White House arc that portrays the dynamics of the Lincoln family.  The death of their son Tad weighs on Abe and Mary.   The aged look of Lincoln can be attributed to prosecuting the worst war in American History and being married to Mary.

                “Lincoln” finished #13 in box office in 2012, which was very good for a movie of its type.  It was the only movie in the top twenty that was non-fiction.  Three of the thirteen were superhero movies, two were teenage trilogy movies, and four were animated children’s movies.  “Lincoln” was the most popular adult drama and its success proves that you can make money with a movie that has a lot of talking in it.  Although I can imagine some audience members might have squirmed like Lincoln’s cabinet when he launched into one of his homespun stories.  The movie is dialogue driven and manages to be set in the Civil War and yet avoid the temptation to throw in explosions.  Kirshner’s script is entertaining in its blend of Lincoln’s brilliant wordsmanship and the political argot of the time.  Did you know they used the f-word back then?  They also used the term “fatuous nincompoop”.  That bon mot was uttered in one of the lively scenes in the House.  Jones gets the best lines as Stevens, but the rest of his distinguished colleagues make you wish C-SPAN had a Civil War archive.   Apparently, back then, they did not use the phrase “my dear friend” before they reamed them.

                The movie is almost flawless in its execution.  It is good Spielberg.  Although the start had me concerned with its lame Spielbergian recital of the “Gettysburg Address” by a white and then black soldier.  After that schmaltzy opening, the movie settles down to straightforward narrative of the events surrounding the passage of the amendment.   The narrative is extremely well-acted by a top-notch cast.  Day-Lewis richly deserved his Oscar and even shambles like Lincoln.  Fields is great (she gained twenty pounds for the role) and gets a scene where she sarcastically tears Stevens a new one.  (Sadly, this did not happen.)  Mary’s insanity is only alluded to.  Jones and Strathairn are strong and there are plenty of familiar character actors to flesh out the film.  The cinematography is showy with the appropriately dark interiors masterly lit.  There is some bravura camerawork, like a domestic scene where Lincoln can be seen in the foreground and in the background in a mirror.  Nicely done. The sets are authentic.

                As far as historical accuracy, I found varying opinions on this issue.  It depended on how nitpicky the historian wanted to be.  But, surprisingly, I also found that there is some disagreement about some of the key facts in the story.  For instance, one of the most provocative plot developments is Stevens shacking up with his black housekeeper.  This seemingly Hollywood invention is based on a well-known rumor/calumny of the time.  Some historians are convinced it was true.  I buy it.  Here is a list of some of the major “are you kidding me?” moments.

1.  Lincoln did have a recurring dream about being the captain of a ship.  The movie implies it was an analogy of the passage of the amendment, but most historians logically feel he was subconsciously associating the ship with the war effort.
2.  Lincoln did tell stories and the ones included in the movie, like the Ethan Allen story, were among his repertoire.
3.  By the time of the movie, Lincoln had culled his cabinet of naysayers, so the movie overplays their opposition.
4.  Seward did employ some shady dealers, but we don’t know whether they actually bribed Congressman.  Lincoln certainly did not meet with them.
5.  Congressmen would not have addressed each other directly in debates, but hurrah (huzzah?) for Hollywood on this one.  Also, the vote would have been by paper ballot.  Ditto.
6.  The Robert Lincoln arc is accurate.  He did insist on enlisting and Abe did get Grant to put him on his staff.  Abe would not have slapped him, even though their relationship was frosty.
7.  The peace delegation arc was accurate, but they would not have been met by black soldiers.
8.  There were blacks in the balcony for the final vote (one was Frederick Douglass’ son Charles), but they would not have entered en masse.  Mary did not attend.
9.  Tad was at a performance of “Aladdin” when his father’s shooting was announced.

                Overall, I consider the movie to be commendably accurate.  This, added to its excellent entertainment value, makes it an outstanding movie.  It is a must-see for every American.  Even if (especially if?) you are a Confederate statue defender.


Thursday, November 16, 2017


WHAT MOVIE IS THIS QUOTE FROM?  "This is the paradox of being a good soldier: To be a good soldier you must love the army, but you must be willing to kill the thing you love."

WHAT MOVIE IS THIS?   The movie is loosely based on the writer/director Samuel Fuller’s experiences with the 1st Division in WWII. The character Zab represents Fuller. The movie was released in 1980 with a substantial amount left on the cutting room floor. In 2004, the director’s cut was released almost doubling the length of the film.  The movie stars a veteran of WWII.  He served in the Marines and was wounded at Saipan.

Friday, November 10, 2017

CRACKER? Andersonville (1996)

                Ted Turner is a Civil War buff.  “Andersonville” was his third foray into the time period.  Most people forget that he produced “Ironclads” in 1991, two years before “Gettysburg”.  Like “Ironclads”, “Andersonville” was made-for-TV.  But unlike the earlier film, a lot of effort went into “Andersonville”.  Turner got John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, The Train) to direct.  Turner also opened up his check book so Frankenheimer could make the film as authentic as possible.  Frankenheimer won an Emmy for Best Direction of a Miniseries or Special.  The movie was nominated for six other Emmys.  The screenplay was loosely based on Andersonville Diary:  Life Inside the Civil War’s Most Infamous Prison by John Ransom.

                A group of Yankees is captured during the Battle of Cold Harbor in June, 1864.  They are shipped to Camp Sumter outside Andersonville, Georgia.  Their first taste (smell) of the camp includes vicious tracking dogs, dead bodies, and stockades with prisoners in them.  The camp has a fifteen-foot wall around it.  When they enter the camp, they are greeted by a seemingly empathetic character named Munn (William Sanderson).  He offers to befriend the “fresh fish” and help them survive.  Fortunately, Pvt. Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick), Sgt. McFadden (Frederic Forrest) and their mates are reunited with a former comrade named Dick (Gregory Sporleder) who clues them in on Munn’s comrades known as the “Raiders”.  The Raiders are led by a bully named Collins (Frederick Coffin).  They prey on the other prisoners. They live fairly well in their sector of the camp by stealing from the vulnerable captives.  Besides the depredations of the Raiders, the camp is a hell hole because of things like lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of clothing, inadequate medical care to deal with diseases, horrible sanitation, and inhumane guards. Do not step across the “dead line”, you won’t be handed your baseball glove and get a stay in the cooler.  To make matters worse, the camp is run by the mentally unstable Capt. Henry Wirz (Jan Triska).  Day, McFadden, and the others hook up with a group led by Sgt. Gleason (Cliff DeYoung).  Gleason’s boys are digging a tunnel and let the new guys in on the digging.  If escape does not work, they will have to deal with the Raiders sooner or later.

                For a made-for-TV movie, the amount of effort that went into the production is incredible.  The movie was filmed on location on a farm about one hundred miles from Camp Sumter.  A less than scale model of the camp was constructed.  It covered nine acres.  A panning shot reveals the painstaking effort to recreate the officers’ quarters, the stockades, the walls, the stream, and the “tents” of the captives.  The fact that it rained consistently during the sixty day shoot helped create the muddy environment that added to the horror of the story.  It was a difficult shoot for the cast and crew.  Plus the 4,000 extras that participated.  Many of them were reenactors, some of whom came from all over the country.  They lent an air of realism to the movie, although it was hard to reenact the emaciation of the prisoners.  You can’t expect reenactors to starve themselves for their hobby.  For the bigger scenes, 3,000 cardboard cutouts of men were used at a cost of $150,000.  (You can’t tell the fakes in the movie.)  Speaking of cost, several reels of film dealing with the trial were lost in transit to the studio and the trial set had to be rebuilt and the principal actors brought back in at a great expense.  If you watch the trial scene, you cannot tell the original footage from the new.

                The laudatory effort goes beyond the production.  The cast is outstanding.  Emick was making his first movie, but he had won a Tony on Broadway.  He does not take acting honors.  Those go to Forrest, Sanderson, Sporleder, and Triska.  Sanderson’s Munn and Coffin’s Collins are great villains.  Triska (a celebrated actor in Czechoslovakia) manages to create some sympathy for Wirz, a man who clearly was in over his head and lacked the personality to be humane.  Special mention goes to Jayce Bartok, who was so good as the drummer boy Billy that his role was expanded.
                David W. Rintals wrote the script and he deserves kudos.  The characters are memorable and the dialogue is fine.  The movie does not slump into melodrama.  The plot builds nicely to the battle between the Raiders and the Regulators.  The ensuing melee is provoked by the charismatic “Lumber Jim” (Peter Murnik) as he calls the victims to arms with his cry of “who’s with me?  who?”  I wanted to jump into the screen and join in.  The brawl is one of the best in cinema history and very satisfying.  The movie could have ended here, but the decision was made to tell the whole story.  Naturally, there is a denouement after the fisticuffs, but the trial does bring closure and more importantly, is based on fact.  The score is excellent and visually the film is intriguing.  Frankenheimer made good use of the Steadicam.

                The movie is not without flaws.  The characters are all good or bad, there is no in between. Heck, Dick is basically a Christ figure.  Rintals adds a visiting inspecting officer played by William H. Macy. Col. Chandler is highly upset with what he sees.   This may have been to show that not all Confederates were bad, but it does allow for a debate between Chandler and Wirz that foreshadows the war crimes trial of Wirz after the war.  The tunneling and escape are short-changed.  There are no underground scenes.  This movie is not “The Great Escape”.  There is no hospital scene, so the full bleakness of the camp is not shown.  It is a film that lacks humor, but having seen so many WWII prison camp movies that make the camp look like a summer camp for men, I can live with that.

                It is a shame that “Andersonville” is not better known.  It could not have been much better for a made-for-TV movie.  Not only is it an entertaining story that is well-acted, but it is a valuable history lesson.  Although fictionalized, you will learn a lot about the most infamous prison camp ever located in America.  I love movies that bring important, but not textbook-worthy stories to the public.  Sometimes those stories are botched and usually there is only one attempt at telling the story.  I’m talking about you “Windtalkers”.  This story was not botched.  It is definitely one of the 100 Best War Movies.

GRADE  =  A-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Camp Sumter was built in Feb., 1864 to handle the large number of Yankee prisoners that were being captured after paroling ended.  Gen. Grant ended the exchange of prisoners partly because it benefited the Confederate Army and the South refused to repatriate black soldiers.  (The movie has some members of the 54th Massachusetts in it.)  The camp was originally 16.5 acres, but was expanded to 26.5 soon after.  At its max, the camp held 30,000 prisoners.  That was way above capacity.  Of the 45,000 total, 13,000 died.  Most of the deaths were attributable to diseases like scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery.  The diseases were amplified by the poor food, clothing, and shelter.  The lack of hygiene was mainly blamed on Stockade Creek which provided the water supply, but was tainted by human waste.  Thankfully, the movie only hints at the role of hygiene in the horrors of the camp.  It has been posited that membership in some type of social network was the most important factor in survival.  Loners tended to die soon.  The camp quickly divided into the Raiders and their victims.  The movie accurately depicts the Raiders and their methods.  Collins stands in for the group of “chieftains”.  Munn is based on another of their leaders.  He was not a lackey as depicted in the film, although the chieftains certainly had plenty of followers who were willing to do the dirty work.  This work included fleecing “fresh fish” and robbing others at night.  Sometimes they killed their victims.  The Regulators evolved in response to their depredations.  Matters reached a head when the Regulators went to Wirz and asked for authority to act as a police force.  Surprisingly, and to his credit, Wirz agreed.  The Regulators rounded up most of the Regulators which included a fight for control of the Regulators' relatively cushy habitat.  Wirz allowed a trial where many were sentenced to stockades, ball and chain, or running the gauntlet.  Six were given the death penalty, including Collins and Munn.  In a reversal of he movie, Collins rope broke during the hanging and he tried to escape, but was reexecuted.  Munn expressed remorse on the scaffold.  As far as the tunnel, there were a 351 documented escapes, which is only .7%  Only a few avoided death or recapture.

                Henry Wirz was the only Confederate to be executed for war crimes after the Civil War.  The movie takes a balanced approach to this controversial figure.  While he undoubtedly could have done more for the prisoners, he was in a difficult position that he did not have the moral strength to deal with.  The food problem, for instance, was not his fault.  His own men were not eating well either.  However, he could have insisted on more humane treatment of the prisoners and more discipline from his own troops.  He appears to have been clueless to the internal dynamics of the camp.  The Chandler character is based on a Dr. James Jones, who spent a day at the camp and wrote a scathing report that helped get Wirz hung after he was found guilty at his trial.    

Sunday, November 5, 2017

NOW SHOWING: Thank You for Your Service (2017)

                “Thank You for Your Service” is the newest war movie to examine PTSD.  It is based on the nonfiction book by journalist David Finkel.  Finkel’s book was a sequel to his “The Good Soldiers” in which he wrote about the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment’s deployment in Iraq in 2007-8.  The sequel deals with the readjustment of the men to life back in America.  It is telling that Hollywood decided to make a movie out of that book instead of his book about combat deployment during the Surge.  I suppose there is more drama in PTSD than in combat.  The movie was directed and written by Jason Hall.  He had written the Academy Award nominated script for “American Sniper”.  This movie is his directorial debut.

                The movie opens with the spongy “Inspired by a true story”.  A squad gets ambushed in an Iraqi city.  One of the men is shot in the head by a sniper.  Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) drops the body on his way down the stairs.  That’s got to have a lasting mental effect.  The unit is returned home not long after the incident.  Schumann’s weapon is checked in by a soldier played by the real Schumann in a cameo.  He is confronted by a war widow (Amy Schumer) who wants to know the circumstances of her husband’s death.  Apparently Schumann is going to be tormented by two deaths.  The movie focuses on the adjustment of three soldiers.  Schumann is readjusting to life with his wife Saskia (Haily Bennett) and young daughter.  They are financially challenged and have lost their house.  His best buddies are Specialist Tausolo “Solo” Aieti (Beulah Koale) and PFC Billy Walker (Joe Cole).  Solo is married without kids.  Billy is expecting to get married, but his fiancĂ© is not home when he gets there.  Their arcs will intertwine. 

                Solo is suffering from memory loss.  Schumann is suffering from the inability to communicate that he is torn up by the two incidents.  They visit the Veterans Hospital in a scene that is mandatory for showing the lack of empathy of the System.  Most of the extras waiting interminably in the waiting area are actual veterans.  I’m sure they did not have to be instructed how to act in the situation.  Solo will have to wait 6-9 months to see a psychiatrist.  To add insult to injury, Schumann ex-CO basically calls him a pussy for being there.  “Don’t fold like this.” This is a tipping point for Adam and Solo.  Each takes a typical PTSD Hollywood path.  One will have to confront his demons and the other will get in bed with demons.

                “Thank You for Your Service” is a sincere effort to cover the effects of PTSD on veterans.  It does not break new ground on this topic, but it is entertaining and I will assume not everyone has seen numerous movies on this topic.  If this will be your first one, you could do worse.  Like “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”.  Although the scenarios depicted in the movie are not really original, some of the dots that are connected are unpredictable.  The movie is not heavy-handed.  There is a fairly subtle use of a wounded pit bull as symbolic of wounded veterans.  We are reminded of the crass treatment of vets, but not bludgeoned by it.  The movie assumes the audience already knows about the flaws in the system.  This movie is not “Born on the Fourth of July” or “Coming Home”.  But it does make it clear we have not improved much from the Vietnam era.  In an interesting discussion, Adam and Solo debate whether it is better to be wounded physically (like Ron Kovic) or mentally (like Adam and Solo).  Solo argues that an amputation at least results in medals and hero status. 

                The movie reminded me a little of an Afternoon Special for adults.  This week’s film is on PTSD.  Three besties deal with the stress of war and readjusting to their families.  The movie has the pat ending of one of those specials, but it is definitely a worthy effort and just as informative.  The acting is very good.  Teller anchors the film as the stoically tortured Schumann.  His interaction with his wife (Bennett) feels authentic, albeit deja-vuish.  Koale matches him as the stereotypical vet who goes over to the dark side.  You care about these comrades.  You may look back at the movie and realize you had seen all of it before, but while you are watching it, you will be drawn into their story.