What do Lincoln and Les Miserables have in common? Enjolras played by Aaron Tveit, a student leader of the June Rebellion in Les Miserables, belts it out: "It is the music of a people/Who will not be slaves again!" It is freedom's anthem. Frenchman Victor Hugo's epic novel was published in 1862 at the time the Civil War between the states was raging across the Atlantic.
Les Miserables deals with social class warfare in nineteenth century France and the June Rebellion of 1832. Lincoln also takes place in the nineteenth century during the last months of his life culminating in the enactment of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution freeing the slaves in America.
The American Revolution was ending with the U.S. Constitution going into effect in 1789 just as the French Revolution was beginning. Today the French national holiday, Bastille Day on July 14th, follows right behind America's Fourth of July Independence Day.
I had seen Les Miserables on stage, so I almost didn't catch this two hour and thirty-nine minute film. I would have missed an historical and acting treasure. No matter how much you enjoyed the stage version, the Sir Cameron Mackintosh/Tom Hooper film production surpasses it, possessing a magnitude and breadth, rarely seen anymore.
Sitting in my seat before the big screen, I felt my eyes growing big as saucers yet still not large enough to take it all in. Gritty and gruesome especially during the holidays, it makes you appreciative to be alive in this century, not that one.
We've seen chain gangs in films before, but the panoramic pulling of a ship to harbor with chains around the prisoners' necks, is particularly brutal. I felt as if I were being choked. Then there's Russell Crowe's quietly menacing Inspector Javert, giving Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) his walking papers. Crowe nails it as a man knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, and his singing voice is a pleasant surprise. I didn't recognize Jackman at first with blood, sweat and tears oozing from his every pore. He opened on Christmas Day. What a present.
Showing the power of film fittingly as Universal Pictures celebrates its hundredth anniversary, Les Miserables brings it home to you as no history book ever can. I walked away thinking how lucky I am to be alive today not then and counting my blessings.
The carol playing on my car radio, as I pulled out of the theater parking lot, appropriately was What Child Is This?. I thought again of the soul-searing performance of little Isabelle Allen as the orphaned child Cosette, rescued from a life of quiet desperation by slave-turned-mayor, Jean Valjean.
Other strong performances include Eddie Redmayne as Marius (My Week with Marilyn 2011) who shares my brother Jan's upcoming Jan. 6th birthday on the Feast of the Epiphany. There are two stage actors making their film debuts -- Aaron Tveit riveting in the barricade scenes and in his rather shocking demise, and the simply gorgeous voice of Samantha Barks (Eponine) who bears a strong physical resemblance to actress Mila Kunis (Black Swan 2010) as she vies with Amanda Seyfried (the teen Cosette) for the affections of Marius.
Let's not forget how much of our early history as a nation is tied up with France. Our Statue of Liberty in New York harbor beckoning huddled masses yearning to be free, was a gift from France. It symbolizes peace, friendship and liberty between the two nations. There are also two Lady Liberty statues in France making it a trio. The layout of our nation's capital in Washington, D.C. was even designed by a Frenchman, the architect and civil engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant.
But those weren't the only gifts from France. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 resulted in France giving the U.S. the land for what turned out to be a third of our states, for a song. President Thomas Jefferson made that purchase from Napoleon Bonaparte for three cents an acre. Even then it was a steal.
In the American Revolutionary War, we received timely crucial aid from the French financially and in manpower as we fought the British. Arguably if it had not been for the French General Lafayette fighting on our side (and later becoming an American citizen), the formation of our nation may never have happened. We may have been reduced instead to the allegorical Anne Hathaway's Fantine singing, "I Dreamed a Dream" that didn't happen. General Lafayette is buried in a Paris cemetery under soil brought from President George Washington's grave at Mt. Vernon.
I got out a five dollar bill during the screening of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln so struck was I by the complete transformation through hair, makeup, voice and demeanor of actor Daniel Day-Lewis as our nation's sixteenth president that I just had to compare Lincoln's face on that bill with the face on the screen right then and there. Remarkable.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, R-PA, a member of the Dartmouth class of 1814, giving me pride since we share the same alma mater. Stevens' yeoman-like efforts are portrayed as greatly responsible for the passage of the thirteenth amendment. Jones has become quite the romantic leading man after a long career of not playing those roles. Earlier this year, he romanced Meryl Streep in Hope Springs and in Lincoln, let's just say, there's a surprise ending which I found charming and romantic. It also happens to be factually accurate. I checked it out -- spoiler alert if you click.
For those of you like myself always looking for a Mad Men fix, recently departed cast member Jared Harris (Lane Pryce who hung himself after Jon Hamm's Don Draper catches a check forgery), shows up alive and well acquitting himself quite nicely as Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
Sally Field is excellent teeter tottering between saneness and insanity as Lincoln's wife. Lovely performances by Gloria Reuben (as Mary Todd Lincoln's historical confidante/seamstress Elizabeth Keckley) and Epatha Merkerson as Lydia Hamilton Smith. The women in Lincoln as fascinating as their men. Is there perchance a sequel about the distaff side in the works?
Cameo roles include President John F. Kennedy's sister, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, listed in the credits as a "woman shouting" and Dartmouth College Theater Prof. Jamie Horton as Rep. Giles Stuart, D-NY who accepts a bribe to vote for passage of the amendment.
Rarely do two actors tie for an acting Academy Award. It happened in 1969 with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter and Barbra Streisand in the musical Funny Girl and years earlier in 1932 with Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Wallace Beery in The Champ.
It should happen at the 2013 ceremony for Daniel Day-Lewis and Hugh Jackman. Both should take home that golden man. Because both actors' acting is golden. Heartstopping performances. Of course, when all the ballots are cast and counted, they may be separated by a few votes, but the Solomonic thing to do would be to give an Academy Award to each of them anyway. That's how very, very good these two men are. The industry would be better for it, and a new generation of moviegoers would be wowed.