Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: The Young Mr. Lincoln

The Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

Considered one of the great American directors, John Ford was at the helm for a considerable amount of superb productions throughout his illustrious career. His movies are still talked about till this day. The same ca be said for the great actor, Henry Fonda. The two would collaborate on several projects, but the first example of their great work together would in 1939, with The Young Mr. Lincoln, a mostly fictional episode in the life of future president Abraham Lincoln.

While the film sacrifices absolute facts (rarely do any historical films ever succeed at truly bringing history to the screen), Ford's film conveys a much different and equally satisfying movie watching experience: that of meeting and discovering a bit about the famous president before he became the public figure he is remembered as in the Unites States. There aren't very many films that choose to tread this path, with only Olver Stone's W. coming to mind (although there may be more). And even then, W. chose to deliver quick recapitulations of various poignant or comical episodes in the recent president's life. Ford's story opts to present a single episode and through it, explore a little bit about the man, who he is exactly and what drives him to do what it is he does.

Most American films, with some very far and few between exceptions, seem determined to deliver very structured plots. Point A, leading to point B, leading to point C, etc. I never got that sense from The Young Mr. Lincoln. Granted, there is a major plotpoint which occurs, that being the trial of two brothers who stand accused of murdering a man just outside there home one night, with Abe Lincoln serving as their defence lawyer. But even that felt as if it was serving more to the discovery of who the famous man was rather than give the viewer some kind of genuine 'plot' to grab onto. The film, overall, is more a series of sequences, all of which feature Lincoln, whose main collective purpose are to explore the soon to be famous man from Kentucky.

A film such as this one, regardless of the director's talents (which are many), will love or die by the performance of the main actor, in this case the late Henry Fonda. Not being American nor having studied very little United States history, I was, in a strange way, fortunate enough to go into the movie 'cold' as they say. I was somewhat aware that Ford had chosen to tell a mostly fictional story, but I can't say that I was intimately familiar with who Abraham Lincoln, the man, was. I knew he had been president of that country in the 19th century and, rather than leave office peacefully, was assassinated, but that's it. I was therefore left at the mercy of Fonda's performance, which turned out to be a great thing. From the very first scene (a personal favourite of mine), we see a fascinating figure who slowly but surely begins to emerge on the public stage. Fonda's Abe is in fact a rather shy figure at first, perhaps even unsure or unaware of his full capabilities as a public figure. The film opens with Abe delivering a very brief and quiet speech to a small crowd of gatherers in a town in Illinois as he wants to eventually be elected to the legislature. He has his own political views, has his own vision of how the country should be run, but certainly isn't very bombastic about it.

That characteristic plays a major role throughout most of the film in fact. There is an undeniable intelligence, both earned and innate, lying beneath that handsome surface. He rarely, if ever, opts to shout out his view or arguments in the film, to be an overly energetic orator or to rouse a crowd to his side through power rather than ideas. Most of the time, he speaks quite calmly for someone who wants, for one reason or another depending on the situation, everybody's attention. He reasons with the folk. As someone from a small town himself, he knows a lot about the people in the Illinois town where the film is set. His advantage is that, by divine gift and some hard work with his nose deep in books (there is even a scene which clearly shows his fascination with them), he is a cut above them and can hold sway. This holds true during many of the movie's entertaining and intriguing sequences, such as when Abe attempts to calm and reason with a furious mob outside the police station, whose sole desire is to lynch the two accused brother Lincoln wants to defend in court. He gets their attention by placing himself, alone, between the building and the angry troop of people (bravery), then begins to offer up a clever speech with mixes logic, common sense, a respect for the law, a respect for his opponents, and even some self-deprecation. It's a truly great moment, not only for the character of Abraham Lincoln, but also for the actor Henry Fonda, who delivers a brilliant performace throughout the movie. Time and time again, Lincoln demonstrates, whether in court, in his office or while visiting the family of his clients, a sense humility towards his fellow people, but also a shade of intelligence that few can probably match. He is an eloquent man, but he is no snob. He is an educated man, but not necessarily a show-off. He is a public figure gaining popularity, but can still hang out with the common folk. Lincoln, at least in this film, is a fully realized person with layer upon layer of human elements which should interest anybody interested in good writing and excellent acting. Fonda really does deliver an acting class to the willing viewer. Charm, subtlety, intelligence, passion, the man's range clearly had no bounds.

For those looking for a straightforward plot, as I hinted at earlier, you may be a tad disappointed. I suppose the focal point of the film in terms of 'story' is the court case. It takes up the better part of the film's second half and, like so many instances, put Loncoln's persona (and by extention Fonda's talent) fully on display. I did indeed want to discover how the case would unfold and what twists and turns the witnesses at the stand would provide, but it was more to see how Lincoln would adapt to the changing circumstances of the case, to see how far his intelligence and reason could carry him in a seemingly hopeless case. I wasn't so much interested in the actual fate of the two brothers than I was in witnessing Abe do his worst to the other side.

The case itself it settled with a twist that would go on to plague countless other court room dramas (a piece of evidence that the audience was not privy to during the previous hearings which suddenly, pop!, Abe has to offer to the jury to finally sway them), but by then the film, and above all else Fonda's performance had already swayed me into believing this was a fine film. For Ford and Fonda fans, this one shouldn't be missed.

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