Hollywood’s History Lessons: Argo and Lincoln

ARGO

Ben Affleck has been sweeping the awards, earning statues for his direction of this film.  But he won’t be getting an Oscar.  Not without the nomination, he won’t.  I couldn’t tell you why this capable film has not earned him the nod, but I can guess that Hollywood is still checking his taste after reading his credits.  It’s a shame too.  The man has paid his dues, and he’s obviously sharpened his skills to be able to penetrate with such a keen point.

Argo as a history lesson is not a complete one.  I won’t go into the details, because I don’t like to give out spoilers in my reviews.  Let’s just say that the movie ups the stakes for the sake of telling an edge of your seat story.  And maybe that’s the point.  You see, if they showed all of the people that were helping and relied simply on the actual events of history, the film would not have gotten the point across.  These six people were in grave danger, and all those who risked their lives to help them were subject to the slippery hands of death.  And that’s where it gets tricky.

You see, when telling a story that actually happened, you have the choice to tell it exactly as it was and possibly never convey the underlying tension or to embellish.  There is a distinct difference when a film says it is “A True Story” and when it says that it is “Based Upon a True Story,” although in truth, I don’t believe most filmmakers know the difference when claiming the former.  The danger does not come in what you leave out; rather, what could make or break your historical drama is in what you choose to add.  (See my review of “The Impossible” for some of my thoughts on what not to do.)  In this, despite the controversy that comes with the choices the filmmakers made here, I think “Argo” does it right.

The biggest hurdle to jump in telling a story like this is that we probably know how it ends.  Despite that fact, you must compel the audience further along, enticing them with tidbits and obstacles and insight.  I was born in 1979.  I was an infant when this tale unfolded under the headlines.  I felt like I was transported back in time and allowed to gaze into the eyes of men and women who were alive and vital when I was still in the cradle, and for that I thank Mr. Affleck.

And I even forgive him for “Daredevil.”

Although I really did like that scene where he discovered his powers.  It was quiet and subtle and felt real.  I am so glad that Ben has found his power.

Overall: 9.5/10

LINCOLN

Lincoln

If you weren’t paying attention, you might say that historical drama is not Steven Spielberg’s specialty.  He’s known for making culture defining pop like “E.T.,” “Jaws,” and the Indiana Jones series.  Those who pay more mind to the credits at the end of a film might think the king of movies was a turncoat, leaving behind his more commercially profitable blockbusters for Oscar-bait since he won his first Academy Award for “Schindler’s List.”  But those of us fully in the S.S. (bad choice of words, considering) know that this master has no specialty aside from making really great movies.  And really bad comedies (see “1941;” though I’d like to see Steven give it another go!).

Here’s a man that won the Irving G. Thalberg Award a mere 12 years into his feature film career.  He cut his teeth on television for six years before that, and before that, he was making movies with his dad’s old 8 mm camera.  He is a great man.

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand. . .  Well, from what I understand, he fought vampires.  Unfortunately, history will never remember him for what he really did for this country.  Sadly, he will only be remember as the Great Emancipator who preserved the Union.

*Why do people insist blockbusters have any validity whatsoever when compared to pure cinema?  But I digress.*

What could more exciting than one of the greatest filmmakers ever making a film about America’s greatest president?  He paints with light and shadow on a canvas of digital celluloid, bringing to life the colorful, homespun nature of his subject and the menagerie of personalities that populated his world.  Whether ambitious or timid, practiced or green, well-mannered or unkempt, cunning or take-me-as-I-am, light or dark, these characters are real.  They stagger to life before us and fret with realistic expectations and motivations that do not come solely from the script.  This world is fleshed out and three dimensional.

The reality is that there is no other filmmaker alive that could have told this story the way it was presented to us.  Every part is played perfectly by brilliant actors that rose to the direction of their leader.  They labored to find the moment of truth in their moments on the screen, and whether they stood chatting briefly in the rain or stood before Congress, each gave the performance of a lifetime.

Again, the historians have every reason to cry fowl over the details.  The drama is heightened in each intimate situation in order to convey the overall difficulties of a nation at war, a complex political chess match, and a family under the burden of all.  Sure, the war didn’t hinge on every move Lincoln and his team made, but the nation did.  How else do you show the audience that?

Aside from getting face time with those who made one of the greatest decisions in this nation’s history, the greatest accomplishment of this film is in taking the time to reveal the quiet man under the marble memorials.  We are given an audience with the chiefest commander, afghan over his shoulders, head slumped forward, notes in his hat, hands on his knees.  We are with him as he gets on his hands and knees and gently stokes the fire.  We are left to guess at his motivations, marvel at his few words, and puzzle at his parables.  This Lincoln is no Atticus Finch impersonation, no ax swinger, no watered down reading of some speech.  He, and all those around him, are reflections in the waters of history brought to life by a magician.

Overall: 10/10

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4 comments

  1. I loved both of these. I saw Argo a long time ago, though… Lincoln I watched yesterday. I wish they had dug into his earlier years a little more, but a wonderfully done film nonetheless…

    1. I agree, Jason. As a biopic, it left me a bit wanting for more historical context. But as a film about one particular moment in our history, it is without peer, in my opinion.

      1. If you haven’t already, you may want to check-out ’13 Days’ about the Cuban missile crisis. Aside from arbitrarily cutting between black & white and color throughout the movie, it’s damn good when it comes to being about one particular moment in our history. Like Argo and only half looking forward to Lincoln. I love the story but not that hack filmmaker you put up on a pedestal. Steven Spielberg? What’s he done that was good? ‘1941’? The weakest segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie?” “Always?” “Hook?” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park?” “A.I.?” “War of the Worlds?” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?” “War Horse?” He’s just awful!

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