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Double Feature: April 2013

Warning! Sitting around watching hours and hours of video will totally fry your brain! But if you do it right, watching movies back-to-back can illuminate wildly different details, create a whole new viewing experience, and totally BLOW your MIND. Plus, it’s fun. Here’s your monthly guide:

First up: Lincoln
Dir. Steven Spielberg, 2012
Blu-ray/DVD – available now

Everyone in Lincoln has bedhead. Major characters of American history skitter about the White House in tattered suits they all seem to have been sleeping in for weeks. The president himself is often seen on his knees, tending to a fire, lifting his son to bed – his shoulders draped in what looks like a lice-ridden rag.

We watch these ragged dignitaries bribe, blackmail, threaten and lie – basically commit the most brash and aggressive political chess moves this side of a Grisham fantasy – all in order to push one of the most radically progressive pieces of legislation in our history through an impossibly narrow doorway.

Lincoln plays more like a thriller at times than a historical drama – the stakes are through the roof, the consequences are disturbing. Even though we know the outcome, that the 13th Amendment becomes a pillar of the Constitution, the characters absolutely do not. They are risking everything, and we are overwhelmed with their suspense and anxiety.

“Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now!” Abraham Lincoln detonates those words at a moment when things feel truly hopeless; they ring across 150 years and jolt us with an alternate possibility of how things could have gone.

Daniel Day-Lewis humanizes one of the most iconic men to ever live with restless curiosity and humility, plagued by astonishing responsibility, horrifying war, the loss of one son and the dread of losing another. He brings wicked wit and bawdy humor to tense situations, gentle focus to conversation, and, as above, a fierce voice that can be both shocking and exhilarating.

He seems to age a year every single day, growing frail, always chilled to the bone. He knows what must be done and exactly how to play the dirty game. He does not shy from the shaggy, lice-ridden, bedhead politics that must be used to do the right thing.

Next up: Gangs Of New York
Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2002
Blu-ray/DVD – available now

And then you turn on Gangs Of New York and suddenly we see Day-Lewis fling a dagger into Lincoln’s face. He sports a walrus mustache, a top hat, and circus pants; he walks as though on crooked stilts, talks as though a demonic cab driver – this is Bill the Butcher.

We’ve skipped back from 1865 to 1862, from the nation’s capitol to the New York slums, where brutal violence, corruption, squalor, and racism dominate. The Civil War is dragging into its second year, and the president is drafting the starving poor and the fresh immigrants into gruesome battles for a cause that flies in the face of their own bitter prejudices. “We shoulda run a better man against Lincoln when we had the chance,” Bill seethes.

In the movie’s greatest scene, he has draped his shoulders with a grimy American flag (yes, probably lice-ridden) and confesses in an unusually soft voice, “I can’t sleep.” He speaks with deep regret and profound triumph simultaneously. Finally, he proclaims solemnly, “Civilization is crumbling.”
Everything this guy does is explosively theatrical, but always grounded in raging, tragic love for his unsettling ideals of America. He is so filled with life and looming stature, that from the moment he enters the movie – with a cleaver and a marble eye, roaring about the “ancient laws of combat” – Bill the Butcher hacks his way into our collective Hollywood dream and never relents.

It is one of the great performances in film history.

In a few years we’ll be saying the same thing about DDL’s performance in Lincoln. Watching these two movies together, we get to see the stunning polarity of his ridiculously awesome performances.

The movies as a whole may fall short – Lincoln is bloated with a few too many speeches and an extended ending, Gangs bristles with inconsistency – but falling short of ridiculously awesome is still pretty darn excellent. Where Scorsese and Spielberg succeed most immediately is in recreating a strange, gritty era of extraordinary change, populating it with ruthlessly passionate American figures doing whatever needs to be done to bring their vision of this country to life.

Gone are the days of reverential, stately historical dramas. These two masters have brought the past to life and made it feel as urgent now as it must have then.

– Rob Fagin

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