In April 1862, Victor Hugo published the first two volumes of Les Miserables. Five months later, Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which became official on Jan. 1, 1863.
These two events may have little to do with each other per se (though Confederate soldiers, reading the first English translation of Hugo's book, were quick to dub themselves "Lee's Miserables"). But they are emblematic, not only of the social and political upheavals of the 19th Century, but of the great minds and spirits of that era who changed Western culture for the better.
The release of Lincoln--directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, based loosely on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals—was met mostly with praise, but also with some predictable caveats. One strain of criticism concerned the director and his well-documented taste for schmaltz. Another concerned the subject of the movie, and the well-documented evidence that—despite his loathing of slavery—he never truly accepted black people as equal to whites.
Be that as it may, Lincoln is a masterpiece. One might argue that the film's opening—a brutal depiction of a Civil War battle, followed by Union soldiers, white and black, reciting the Gettysburg Address from memory to Lincoln himself—is Spielbergian in the negative sense. But after that, the film is hard to fault in any way. Anchored by Kushner's taut screenplay, Spielberg turns the story of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment into a first-rate historical-political thriller. The issues surrounding the abolition of slavery—personal, political, and economic—were manifold and intricate, and Lincolnarticulates them masterfully.
In keeping viewers on the edge of their seats, the film is at least the equal of Argo, but it has the added power of the historical personalities involved and the extraordinary, epoch-making issues at hand. This was one of the crucial moments in the history of the United States, and Spielberg and Kushner make sure that thought stays in the forefront of our minds.
Lincoln demonstrates the murderous uphill battle Lincoln and his allies faced in trying to obtain passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Pro-slavery sentiment was still rampant, even in the North; meanwhile, the Abolitionists were skeptical, finding the amendment too weak and fearing it was just another one of Lincoln's political ploys.
In showing the struggle for passage, the film effectively knocks Lincoln off his pedestal while making his character and accomplishments all the more admirable. Above all, the film shows us, Lincoln was a master politician. He wasn't above lobbying for votes with the promise of presidential appointments (James Spader, playing pro-Lincoln lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, provides a bright spot of comic relief). But when the crucial moment came, Lincoln commanded obedience with the ferocity of a field marshal. Furthermore, he did it in service of the very highest ideals and the greatest, most far-sighted patriotism. The scene in which Lincoln finally lays down the law—a snippet of which is in the film's trailer—is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
To have such a magnificent moment, you have to have a magnificent actor. It is impossible to think of an actor more magnificent than Daniel Day-Lewis, either in general or in this specific role.
The list of actors who have played Lincoln is long and illustrious--one of them, Hal Holbrook, plays Preston Blair in this film. But Day-Lewis, more than any other, captures what seems like the totality of the man. Day-Lewis gets Goodwin's physical descriptions down pat—the high-pitched, Kentucky-accented voice; the stooped, oddly elephantine gait. But even more, Day-Lewis projects Lincoln's keen mind, his boundless humanity, his sly wit and endless repertoire of funny but pointed stories. ("Oh God," exclaims Bruce McGill's Edwin Stanton at one point. "You're telling another story!") However historians may argue about the racial enlightenment of Abraham Lincoln, he certainly was as enlightened as he would ever be in early 1865, and Day-Lewis makes us feel the full force of his moral probity.
Like a Christmas tree, Lincoln is decked with glittering performances. Besides the aforementioned actors, some of the most impressive include Sally Field, giving a more sympathetic account of Mary Todd Lincoln than the movies usually allow; David Strathairn, a solid and dignified William Seward; and Tommy Lee Jones, a standout as the acidulous Abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens. ("I've spent my life fighting for the greater good of my fellow man," Stevens tells Lincoln at one point, "and I don't give a damn about any of them!")
There are many other wonderful actors in small roles in Lincoln—really too many to mention. But special note must be made of S. Epatha Merkerson in a role that I will not reveal, but which will be of particular interest to those who have seen The Birth of a Nation. It is gladdening to see how, in the casting of Merkerson, Spielberg throws the racism of D.W. Griffith back in his face.
In Lincoln, Spielberg and Kushner accomplish every conceivable goal. They make the 1860s milieu palpable and immediate (for which cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter and costume designer Joanna Johnston also deserve credit). They portray forcefully the importance of the issues at play in the Thirteenth Amendment, and their relevance to how America has evolved as a nation. Above all, they convey the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, and make us mourn afresh his loss--violently and far too early, at the hands of a fanatic who closely resembles some types we see today.
The political issues surrounding Les Miserables were scarcely less murderous in its time. In 1870, eight years after the book's publication, Victor Hugo sheltered refugees from the Paris Commune in his home; right-wingers battered on his door, shouting, "Death to Jean Valjean!" It is hard to know how Hugo would react to the knowledge that his monumental creation is now famous mainly in the splashy, somewhat sappy but undeniably powerful musical version by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.
Tom Hooper's film version of the musical has been the target of some predictable critical brickbats--mostly from those who hold Boublil and Schonberg, along with Andrew Lloyd Webber, responsible for the decline of the musical as an art form. To some extent I sympathize. As songwriters, Schonberg, Boublil and their English translator Herbert Kretzmer aren't a patch on the tuxedo pants of Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, or the Gershwin brothers, and some of the rhymes in the lyrics of Les Miz are truly wince-inducing. But here's the thing about Les Miz: it works. Speaking for myself, the rhapsodic melodies of the musical's big numbers—"I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own," and especially "Bring Him Home"—never fail to bring tears to my eyes. The musical conjures emotions that go far beyond its spectacular stagecraft, tapping into Hugo's Dickensian ability to create characters that resound in the marrow of our bones. Audience response to Les Miz is not so much Pavlovian as Jungian; few works of fiction appeal so strongly to universal aspirations for liberty, empathy, and simple human decency.
Hooper's version of Les Miz has the narrative sweep appropriate to the story. Working with cinematographer Danny Cohen and production designers Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson, Hooper's film is spectacular in an old-fashioned, big-hearted way. From the first scene, where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his fellow convicts salvage a wreck off the southern coast of France, we know we are in for an all-enveloping experience, and we get it.
Critics, meanwhile, have amused themselves playing Whack-a-Mole with the cast of Les Miz, passing judgment on which actor has the worst voice. The singing was recorded live, something that hasn't been attempted in a movie musical since Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love in 1975. (I haven't seen At Long Last Love, and neither I nor anyone else I know of wants to.) One critic used Les Miz as the pretext for a passionate call to resume the practice of dubbing, though no one in the Les Miz cast goes anyone near the abysmal depths plumbed decades ago by Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, or Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot.
Among the Les Miz cast, Russell Crowe (Javert) has come in for the worst drubbing, with Anne Hathaway (Fantine) a close second. But even Jackman, one of the greatest musical stars of his generation, has taken some lumps. One critic gave a backhand to Samantha Barks (Eponine), praising her voice but slagging her acting. Eddie Redmayne (Marius), a magnificent singer, has mostly escaped the hue-and-cry; so, oddly enough, have Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, who have the weakest voices of the lot. Apparently, less was expected of them.
Personally, I thought all their voices appropriate to the roles they played, and all their acting much more than adequate. If Crowe's voice has a lugubrious tone, nevertheless it fits Javert. Hathaway's voice may be small, but it is also pure, sweet, and touching. In fact, I prefer Hathaway's voice to those of the stage Fantines I have heard, whom I thought sounded too brassy for a dying woman. I was moved deeply by Hathaway's version of "I Dreamed a Dream"—and also by Jackman's "Bring Him Home." There's not much to say about Jackman's performance, except that Jean Valjean was a role he was born to play, and he makes the most of the opportunity. He is eminently competitive for this year's Best Actor Oscar; considering the other nominees, that is high praise indeed.
Among the actors in smaller roles, the best are Aaron Tveit, a strikingly handsome and charismatic Enjolras; Danny Huttlestone, a fine Gavroche, who undoubtedly has a date with Toby Ragg or the Artful Dodger in the near future; and Colm Wilkinson, the original West End Jean Valjean, as the bishop who sets Valjean down a moral path.
Together, Lincoln and Les Miserables recall the noblest strains of 19th-Century idealism—an idealism that still holds enormous appeal today. In an era which represents the apex of the ability of human beings to destroy each other, we still can find hope in those stories that speak to the angels of our better nature.