Cinema review: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and The Last Stand

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History sets a man on a plinth. Biography’s job, on page or screen, is to take him off it and render him human. In Lincoln director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner – reluctant to lose the myth while chasing the man – achieve what may be cinema’s most accomplished bid to have it both ways. One moment the makers are like Lilliputians running around their Gulliver: ambitious painterly compositions, sculptural gestures, inspirational music, all the aesthetic scaffolding required to portray Daniel Day-Lewis’s president as a giant among immortals. The next moment – or often the same moment – they give him a human nearness, a warmth of idiom and a touching, believable vulnerability.

Their snapshot of history, boldly miniature, is taken during Lincoln’s last but enduring major political initiative: the bid to pass the 13th Amendment decreeing the abolition of slavery. Anyone who believes that “whipping” is a modern political phenomenon needs to study it in action here. Basing their scenes on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln tome Team of Rivals, Spielberg and Kushner depict the often frantic, frequently borderline-corrupt lobbying, bribing and browbeating that preceded the passage of the emancipation bill.

It proves a miraculous match between movie and subject. On screen, grand cinema gets into bed with a busy, breathless intimism and scurries of promiscuous interaction between co-stars distinguished enough, normally, to be granted their own moments of sovereign grandstanding. In history Lincoln tried to preserve his outward honour and high gravitas while licensing, if not practising, weeks of low political chicanery and backroom brokering. The end justifies the means? Try to argue that it didn’t, in Washington back in January 1865.

The cast is a surge of top Hollywood character actors determined to transcend their beards, hairpieces and funny costumes. It is amazing that we soon know who all these people are historically, not simply that they are Tommy Lee Jones in a curly wig (Thaddeus Stevens), Sally Field in a mob cap (Mrs Lincoln) or James Spader with a paunch and spade beard (chief bully of reluctant yea-voters). It is more amazing that we come to care who they are.

Daniel Day-Lewis is now an official screen phenomenon. He played a scheming, grandiloquent American power broker in There Will Be Blood. Here he plays another and the actor is unrecognisable. Reedy, husky, high-voiced – as sources insist Lincoln was – this Abe still makes a table shake with his passionate conviction and can still spellbind a listener (a cobra transfixing its victim) with a seemingly trivial anecdote that subtly identifies and impales the point he wants to persuade us with. By stepping into history without fear, favour or any overfamiliar biopic folly, Lincoln, handsome, often thrilling, and movingly human, goes into history as a major movie achievement.

More on American politics of confrontation; more on “means and ends”. Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty (and before that The Hurt Locker), has little use for bleeding hearts except when they can be thrown through cage bars to the ravenous or indignant. Her new film narrates the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden. It chucks a lot of red meat at liberals seeking outrage fodder. That fodder will include, for some, the taunting gestures of tokenist anguish in early scenes – the gulps and winces of star Jessica Chastain, playing heroine Maya, partly based on the real CIA investigator who unearthed America’s Enemy Number One, as she watches waterboarded Arab prisoners.

Torture? All part of the game, argues the movie. (Maya is soon as unrepentant as the rest.) And the game was set in motion – with its own rules – by 9/11, whose harrowing emotional white noise (the screams, sobs, muffled valedictory phone calls) is sound-montaged against a black screen at the film’s start. Zero Dark Thirty is for the gung-ho and their friends and families. I admire Bigelow’s bloody-mindedness (in all senses) as she and scenarist Mark Boal plough their gore-spattered furrow, demonising the murderously determined on the enemy side while asking us to applaud – or to consider doing so – the murderously determined on our side.

Whether you want to call the CIA and its soldiers “our” side after seeing this film may be debatable. But the first victor of good storytelling is honesty. If information was learnt through torture, let’s know it. Equally, if there are hints that torturing didn’t lead to material revelations, only to blind alleys, let’s be honest there too, and the film is. Many early leads led nowhere. Late on, it’s a tiny forgotten dossier – rather than a writhing specimen of humanity under duress – that tips the wink to Bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Since Zero Dark Thirty lasts 157 minutes, we get all imaginable views of the witchy pentacle that is covert US military politics. Inside the pentacle: the experts and their spells, schemes and sado-inquisitorial methods. Outside: the baying reality of jihad and its atrocities. Two terrible extremes: pick your evil. Bigelow, for all her film’s length, never ceases to “cut to the chase”, lucidly and intelligently sequencing the key events, dealing out chapter headings as briskly when they are abstractions – “Human Error”, “Tradecraft” – as when they are macabre co-ordinates: “CIA Black Site Gdansk Poland”. Little-known faces dominate the supporting cast, except when the director wants a sly touch of opera buffa (James Gandolfini as CIA head). Weirdly but effectively, several actors are Brits or Aussies doing US accents (Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton), picked as if to push the acoustic a little more towards creepy guile, if Brits, or macho ebullience, if Aussies.

The weakest link is the composited heroine. As well as Maya’s seeming a construction rather than a character Jessica Chastain – for this viewer at least – still trails clouds of incongruous pantheistic passivity from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. That chaste, pre-Raphaelite face, pale and incandescent, makes as if to idealise this warrior and her war. But if the end of the hunt for Bin Laden was laudable – the death of an al-Qaeda monster – the means were often ugly. That combination of opposites should have been more clearly reflected in the film’s protagonist.

In The Last Stand the ex-governor of California turns his sword back into a ploughshare. Once more a humble tiller of Tinseltown soil, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a German-born Texas sheriff who deputises his small-town riff-raff (High Noon or Rio Bravo style) to foil the bid of an escaped Hispanic prisoner, broken from a city jail, to leap the border canyon to Mexico. The fugitive is helped by a home-made bridge, a near-supersonic Corvette and a Swedish-American nutter (Peter Stormare) leading an advance thug militia into Sheriff Arnie’s Sommertown.

Rubbish? Yes. But some rubbish is more planet-friendly than other rubbish. This film is spry, funny, tense and action-packed, just like Arnie-works used to be. The Korean direction and cinematography help, building to a scenic finale batty with quasi-Asian bravura. It won’t make up for the Californian state budget debacles. But it’s good to see Arnie moving back to the kind of public service he does best.

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