Tag Archives: B+

WEST OF MEMPHIS

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B+

If you’ve seen the “Paradise Lost” trilogy on the case, “West of Memphis” will be a must. If not, it’s even more so. The travesty of justice that the 1994 conviction of three young men in small-town Arkansas for the brutal murders of three eight-year old boys represented was first taken up cinematically by documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in the initial HBO installment of their trilogy, which gave birth to a grass-roots campaign to have the case reopened and the convictions reversed. The film and its sequels are the most significant, and effective, cinematic assault on the American justice system since Errol Morris was instrumental in freeing a wrongly-convicted man from the Texas death row with “The Thin Blue Line” in 1988.

Among the supporters that Berlinger and Sinofsky’s investigations attracted to the cause of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who, along with Echols, who was released after some seventeen years awaiting execution, produced this recap of the entire case, directed by Amy Berg and co-written by her with Billy McMillan. It repeats a good deal of the content of the “Paradise Lost” series, which was completed only this year with the third and final installment, and viewers familiar with those three films will mostly find themselves reacquainting themselves with the case rather than learning new facts about it. What’s made abundantly clear is the dedication of supporters in collecting evidence that threw doubt on the convictions and the abject failure of the Arkansas courts to show any willingness to hear it.

The one major new thrust, which was certainly touched upon in “Paradise Lost 3” but considerably expanded on by Berg, is the argument that the stepfather of one of the victims might have been the actual perpetrator. Not John Mark Byers, the hot-tempered stepfather of Christopher Byers, who was identified as a suspect in “Paradise Lost” 2, but Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch. Substantial evidence is amassed here against Hobbs, not only in terms of information about his past life and holes in his alibi—matter discussed briefly by Berlinger and Sinofsky after Hobbs unwisely left himself open to questioning under oath by bringing suit against the Dixie Chicks, who were vocal supporters of the convicted men—but new data including DNA findings and indirect testimony from friends of Hobbs’s nephew that the family was aware of his guilt.

To be sure, it’s doubtful that the information assembled against Hobbs would be sufficient to convict him of the murders, and in that respect one might accuse Berg—whose presentation is, frankly, pretty aggressive—of espousing the same attitude of presumption of guilt against him that prosecutors, the media and the public took against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. But one’s sense of disquiet over that has to be mitigated by the totally unsatisfying and illogical outcome of the Arkansas legal process, which in 2011 employed a little-known provision of the law called an Alford plea, by which the three were released after agreeing to present a guilty plea while still maintaining their innocence. The arrangement effectively means that the state considers the case closed while returning to society men whom it still legally considers responsible for a heinous crime (one of whom had been sentenced to death), effectively precluding any official investigation of the person who might actually have committed the act.

In any event “West of Memphis” is primarily important for shining a spotlight on one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in recent American history, and doing so in the form of a single, comprehensive film (though a long one at 2½ hours) that some might be more willing to watch that three very long documentaries. And by including a wealth of new interviews with the accused, their families, lawyers and advocates (most notably Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, who helped spearhead the effort on their behalf), the victims’ relatives, prosecutors, judges and others (including the two young men who report on what Hobbs’s nephew said), as well as offering post-prison portraits of the three released (if not officially exonerated) men, it gives some indication of the enormous human cost of the entire unhappy episode.

Still, it should never replace the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which stands beside Morris’ groundbreaking work among the milestones in activist American non-fiction filmmaking.

LINCOLN

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B+

The first five minutes of “Lincoln” are frankly awful. The President, meeting with Union soldiers in some unspecified staging area, is first greeted by two white boys in blue, callow, starstruck lads who, like giggling fans, take it upon themselves to recite the Gettysburg Address to him. Then one of two black soldiers nearby follows up their performance by brazenly haranguing Lincoln about the inequitable treatment that he and others of his hue continue to receive, despite the Emancipation Proclamation.

You can understand the function of the sequence, which is sort of a prologue to what follows. Screenwriter Tony Kushner wants to situate the audience, telling them in effect that we’re at the endgame of the war and the treatment of blacks, even in the North, continues to weigh heavily on the nation’s—and the President’s—conscience. Fifty years ago, that information would have been handled—in a big-budget historical epic like this—through introductory narration intoned by some heavyweight character actor, often with a British-sounding accent—Alexander Scourby, perhaps. Given the quality of what Kushner and Spielberg came up with as a replacement, one might well have preferred the old way.

But once that sequence is out of the way, “Lincoln” finds its footing. It doesn’t try to be a full-fledged biographical piece. Instead it concentrates on the President’s determined effort, in the waning days of the war, to push through his proposed thirteenth amendment to the constitution, abolishing slavery—something thought necessary despite the Proclamation, which was a wartime measure that could be rescinded once peace came. The measure had already passed the Senate but was blocked by Democrats in the House, where it needed a two-thirds majority to be sent to the states for ratification.

The best thing about the screenplay is that while it doesn’t stint on Lincoln’s humane, folksy spirit—indulging in his penchant for interrupting the most serious moments with long-winded tall tales and anecdotes—it concentrates on his political instincts, and particularly on his willingness to use questionable tactics that amount to buying votes with presidential patronage to secure the amendment’s passage. As a result, it avoids the temptation to portray him as some sort of plaster saint, instead of the astute, calculating man he was—even going so far as to delay receiving a Confederate peace delegation, effectively prolonging the combat until he can secure the amendment’s passage. That theme extends to other historical figures depicted here as well—like Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican, who’s shown deliberately moderating his long-held views on racial equality during the House debate in order not to alienate those less restrained in their views than he was.

Of course, “Lincoln” is drama, not documentary, and liberties are taken with the record. Much is made of Kentucky Congressman George Yeaman’s abrupt decision to vote “aye” in the end, for example—an act that’s treated here as a near-miraculous, principled change of heart that provides a typically rousing Spielbergian crest to the emotional wave. In fact, Yeaman was soon after appointed U.S. ambassador to Denmark, and it’s difficult to imagine that plum hadn’t been dangled before his eyes before the vote. But the film isn’t intended as a history lesson, and if that’s what one wants, one can always turn to the pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” or the numerous other scholarly works on the Civil War period for it. As an uplifting history-based tale of political machination employed for high purposes, it works beautifully.

That’s not simply because of Kushner’s compelling script and Spielberg’s controlled (some will say ponderous) direction, but as a result of the expert performances. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln doesn’t stun—with a couple of volatile exceptions, he’s too laid-back and easygoing for that—but it’s a terrific turn that captures the man’s grace and humility, as well as his paternal devotion to his younger son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), but also his steely resolve and the weight of grief he had to bear, as president, husband and father. His restraint is matched by that of David Strathairn as his closest cabinet confidante Secretary of State William Seward, and by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his oldest son Robert, who wants to join the army though Lincoln opposes it.

But elsewhere the cast is giving freer rein. Sally Field brings a surprising degree of ferocity to Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones rips and roars like a ferocious but cunning old lion as Stevens. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson exude roguish charm as the three vote-getters Seward hires on Lincoln’s behalf, while Hal Holbrook adds his touch of authority to Francis Blair, the grand old Republican who forced the President to consider a Confederate peace offer before agreeing to back the amendment. The rest of the cast—except for that unfortunate quartet in the introductory scene—do engaging work, even when the picture takes on a pageant-like feel.

From the technical perspective “Lincoln” is as smooth and professional a piece of work as one expects of Spielberg, with the burnished cinematography of Janusz Kaminski giving each scene the tone of a period photograph, accentuating the careful efforts of production designer Rick Carter, art directors Curt Beach, David Crank and Leslie McDonald, set decorator Jim Erickson and costume designer Joanna Johnston. The overall effect—complemented by John Williams’ score, which uses period pieces to provide color, as well as the assured but stately directorial style—can come across as static, but it carries cumulative emotional impact, especially in a coda dealing with the assassination.

“Lincoln” has some problems—witness that opening scene. But it succeeds beyond what one had any right to hope in avoiding simple hagiography, capturing Lincoln’s human frailty as well as his wily political side.