Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT) were both released this week in the UK, are both serious Oscar contenders clocking in at around 2.5 hours, and were both seen by me and my S.O. on Saturday, but those aren’t the only reasons I have paired them together. Both films deal with telling the allegedly true story of key moments from America’s history – the first, the introduction of the 13th amendment outlawing slavery around 150 years ago, the second, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the wake of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, and his eventual death at the hands of Seal Team Six.
It’s not so much the content of the films that bears comparison here, though there are certainly things to be said about each film’s thoughts on ‘freedom’, but the differing approaches made to representing history and the expectations put on the audience.
There can be no doubt as to the place in American history filled by Abraham Lincoln, almost unquestionably thought of as that nation’s greatest President, a man renowned as a great thinker, a great storyteller, a great orator, a great writer… just an all-round great guy. What is very clear from the opening moments of Lincoln is that the film is not going to challenge that (not that I am aware of anything in particular that could challenge that).
The film is reverent and worthy, a monument to Abraham Lincoln’s greatness intent on portraying his two greatest victories – winning the Civil War (and in doing so, keeping the Union together) and outlawing slavery, the latter viewed as a key component in completing the former. The film makes sure to introduce as many concerned parties as possible, explaining all of the different ways in which these men viewed slavery – very few of whom seemed to consider the matter of slaves actually being people and not possessions, while others believed that while the slaves deserved to be free, they would be incapable of dealing with it at that time.
Lincoln had to use all of his politicking and rhetorical skills in order to sway enough members of the House of Representatives to vote for the passing of the 13th Amendment, and we get to see them all in practice. There is certainly something to marvel at in his skills at conducting an audience, holding attention and reasoning with those of differing viewpoints, but there is less to marvel at in the film itself which comes across more as an interesting (though not enthralling) documentary rather than a tense drama. It is filled with facts and moments and stories from Lincoln’s life but never feels anything more than a moving version of a textbook.
Only one character comes across as three dimensional – that of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a man who has been promoting the position of African Americans in society and campaigning for their freedom for sometime but has to outwardly compromise his views in order to gain the victory he desires. Everyone else is fulfilling a role and cannot be allowed a degree of nuance, least of all Lincoln. And to a certain extent, that is right. Lincoln is a hero to Americans (and to a lesser extent, worldwide), and by making him human you might risk lessening his position or the admiration directed towards him. No man can be faultless, but sometimes we need a faultless man to look up to and perhaps the legend of Lincoln is more important than the man himself. [I hope that makes sense] Unfortunately that only serves to diminish the impact of the film which will, I am sure, be over-utilised in classrooms all across America and possibly this country too.
A few casting notes – Daniel Day Lewis is superb. He is, in every way, what you would expect Lincoln to look and sound like. His performance is masterful and a little eerie – as eerie as it can be when he’s performing as someone who’s been dead since the 1860s. However, he is essentially performing a kind of reverential caricature.
Playing Lincoln’s son Robert is Joseph Gordon Levitt, of whom I am a great fan. Looper was one of my films of last year and he was brilliant in that, as in Brick, his previous film with Rian Johnson as director. Likewise, Premium Rush was brilliant fun last year. Here, however, I never believed in him. He felt too 21st century, not meshing in the world. Perhaps I am too familiar with him (and particularly his character Tommy from the sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun), but he seemed to stick out a little where everyone else seemed to blend in.
Finally, there’s plenty of guess who opportunities here, with lots of roles filled out by familiar faces, including members of the cast of Breaking Bad, Justified and Girls, as well as man of the moment John Hawkes (see my previous review of The Sessions).
So that’s one way to deal with history, let’s move on to another, and to Zero Dark Thirty.
There are two major talking points about ZDT, and both need to be dealt with before we can talk about the film itself. The first of these is about the veracity of the information meted out as fact. This is a familiar problem for cinema and I have a general rule that any non-documentary film that mentions a ‘true story’ (be it “Based on real events”, “Based on a true story” or, worst of all, “Inspired by real events”) should be taken with a pinch of salt. I have read a variety of reports that, between them, rebut pretty much every element of this, from the use of torture to the fact that the lead character was a man, now deceased. I don’t think this should be a concern, except for the fact that some people will consider the action depicted to be 100% true, but in that case I think the responsibility lies with the viewer not with the artist. If an artist (be that writer, director, painter or musician) always worried about the way in which their work would be interpreted, no art would ever be produced.
To that end, we should consider that the filmmakers have taken what we know to be true and fitted a narrative around it that is designed to be both compelling and philosophical, in as much it should stimulate thought and debate within the audience about the way in which information is gathered and wars are fought.
And that links in with the second major talking point, the depiction of torture and its perceived validity in the gathering information in our ‘war on terror’. Again, much has already been said on this topic and, typically, the loudest voices have been those speaking the least sense. The film doesn’t outwardly condone or condemn the use of these techniques, instead depicting a number of ‘facts’ and leaving it up to the audience to make up their own mind. It is a trick brilliantly deployed in that, first of all, it has enabled the film to become a major talking point which is sure to have brought more people into the cinema. But it is also brilliantly deployed because you can pretty much read into the film what you want to read into it. I am sure you could take away from the film that it is all in favour of torturing people, in fact, that it says that is the only way to get the information you need. I can also see who you can interpret the film as saying that torture is a waste of time, that the information generated cannot be trusted and that it is to be deplored.
Others may say that the film chickens out of making a call either way. My personal view is that the film is purposely grey in this area, it wants to stimulate the debate and it has succeeded. It is not chickening out by not taking a stance but is, instead, being highly intelligent in not spelling out a message and allowing the audience to make up its own mind.
As for the film itself, this can be divided into 2 completely unequal sections. The first is everything up to the decision to send in a team to Abbottabad after Osama bin Laden (or UBL as the film calls him, making use of an alternative spelling of his first name), and the second is the final 30 minutes depicting their clinical strike.
Taking them in order, the first 2 hours of the film take us from the terrorist attacks of 9-11, through the information trail to the final identification of UBL’s home. It is a procedural – a detective story – though one of a type rarely if ever depicted. Where audiences might be used to James Bond, Jack Bauer or assorted others forcing information from suspects and sources, or sneaking it from computer drives, here we are in a much greyer world. The veracity of any information given cannot be taken for granted – it needs to be verified by multiple sources – and anything that seems too good to be true, probably is (as is made clear in one chilling sequence at a US army base in Afghanistan). And not just that, there is the wealth of information. The sheer volume of data that must be dealt with is staggering and the ease of a detail being missed is clear. It is clear that there are no certainties here. 80% certain is as good as it gets. 60% is more typical.
And this is where the audience is questioned. Are you comfortable with drone strikes being made on the basis of people being 80% sure (at best)? Can anyone ever be 100% certain in these cases? Given the stakes, just what is the acceptable level of risk, both in making the wrong decision and towards ourselves, in our own first world lives?
These aren’t easy questions and ultimately there is no right answer to them, just as there is probably no right answer to the question of torture. It is not comfortable viewing.
And for a film, these uncertainties are brilliantly dealt with, but I couldn’t help feeling we were missing out. Having watched (and loved) the short-lived series Rubicon a couple of years ago, much of what was asked in this film was asked there. While it moved at a glacial pace at times, there were episodes that evoked the nature of the information chase, the analysis of risk, the methodologies and appropriateness of interrogation techniques, in a far better manner, but then that series had 13 episodes in which to deliver these stores, not 150 minutes.
The other element of the film, then, was the attack on UBL’s compound. Now the questioning was out of the way, we just had an enthralling and nailbiting sequence of how the attack went down, much of it cast in near darkness. This is a superb sequence, unlike pretty much any other put onto the screen. You don’t get the same visceral thrills of a Bond finale, there aren’t hundreds of henchmen to be done away with and bullets flying in every direction. Instead, this is slow and methodical, a true depiction of the work of a clinical strike team in the field. It is brilliant, and it makes you realise just how wrong most films have it when it comes to action.
There is one other thing to raise in relation to this film, and that is the central role of Maya, portrayed by Jessica Chastain. I have seen some criticism of the portrayal of such a driven woman – that she is cold, bitchy, unforgiving. That may be true, but I also thought as I watched it how it would come across were it a man in her role. He would be driven, uncompromising. This reaction (and it is solely reaction, the film is not critical of her at all) shows the sexism that still pervades. What is admirable in a man is unbecoming in a woman. Personally I found Chastain an enthralling screen presence and admired Maya’s dedication to the job at hand, and I felt the film only made an error in its framing of her with regard to the very last shot of the film.
By not approaching the film as a living textbook, Bigelow managed to create a more stimulating watch, bringing together fully three dimensional characters and leaving it to the audience to make up their own mind rather than projecting an authorial voice and opinion. For me, that is why the film stands head and shoulders above Lincoln and pretty highly in the films of the last year.
8.5/10 (4 stars)
Lincoln – 6/10 (4 stars)