Note: these reviews will contain spoilers.
The general consensus is that it’s been a good year for film. As opposed to some years past, when the Academy was content to celebrate big CGI spectacles (LOTR, Avatar) or well-crafted whimsy (Kings Speech, the Artist), this year contains films that are culturally relevant, deep themed, and artistically innovative.
I’m not going to dig into all 9 films up for Best Picture, but these three have a lot in common. They’re all about dark chapters in American history. All three employ unique style and voice, but each ask deep questions and aren’t afraid to peel back the patriotic veneer of American mythology.
Zero Dark Thirty
The backstory of this film could be a film in itself. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal start out to make a documentary-style film on the failed hunt for Bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind gets whacked half-way through, they reboot and use their unprecedented government access to put out a feature film only a year later. And then the whole backlash over torture, whether it was condoned by the film (it’s not) or useful in the quest for OBL (it wasn’t).
But never mind that.
The film is built of lots of hand-held shots and quick cuts, the faux-documentary style of Paul Greengrass and others. It’s even less stylized then Bigelow’s last film – The Hurt Locker. There aren’t any super slow-mo shots of explosions, macro-lenses zoomed in on grains of sand or C4. The film stock is visibly digital, heightened by the fact that much of the expository scenes are simply recordings of Maya (Chastain’s character) staring blearily into security cam footage of interrogations. The big explosions are filmed perfunctory and then explicated further with archival newscast footage.
Even the Bin Laden compound raid is strangely mundane. The SEALs move confidently and orderly, but they aren’t elite ninjas. A few of them bumble around with their explosives or equipment. Their chopper crashes from a combination of mechanical and pilot error. Their guns are suppressed, so the kill shots sound like an office worker stapling a stack of paper. The brunt of the work occurs when they have to ransack the trove of hard drives and files from Bin Laden’s home office.
The film creates a reality of a dystopian American hegemony, where white collar workers do the business of intelligence and spy gathering. It’s no surprise the CIA holds the nickname “the Company”.
These are office workers – bleary eyed under fluorescent lights, shuffling papers, a forlorn Christmas tree in an empty cafeteria in an Afghanistan base.
Maya has no relationships, no smiles. Her only emotion is when she is pushing back against bureaucratic road blocks. Her human connections are cold. When a colleague is killed by in a suicide attack, she’s left frozen at her desk, staring at a dangling IM convo.
Contrast this with bin Laden’s daughters, weeping and awestruck when the SEALs bust in.
As opposed to the jihadists, who face their fateful conflagration with religious zealotry (“Allahu Akbar!” prior to detonation), the Americans are all dry wit and sarcasm, middle managers stuck with unappetizing business tasks. Even the CIA director faced with a losing situation rages in the language of a CEO decrying a bad quarterly return, more Jack Welch than George Washington.
There’s no patriotism in their actions, and any deep seated political convictions are sucked away, plastered over with the machinery of a modern tech empire.
The film opens and closes with weeping. KSM’s nephew, strung up and water boarded, sleep deprived, weeps from his torture. Maya, victorious but alone, finished with her mission, weeps as well. Both have experienced the death of friends, the hollowing of their resolve, physical, mental and emotional strain. Spiritual destruction. Both sides had their gory victories, but at what cost?
Tarantino continues to make alternate history with Django Unchained, and lives up to his calling card, which is giving obsessive homage to schlocky genres of cinema past.
The initial comparisons are to Inglorious Basterds, his World War II alterna-history which also starred Christoph Waltz. But that film was far more wordy, ratcheting up tension slowly in scenes such as the French farmhouse and the basement bar. Django’s true analogue is probably Kill Bill, where a hero is wronged, and then spends the remainder of the film enacting bloody revenge, no questions asked.
Tarantino constructs his films out of obvious tropes, and here he combines the Western (beautiful vistas of American outdoors, silhouettes on horseback, the sound of gunfire) with Blaxploitation (quick zoom close up, cheesy ultra-violence, lo-fi soul soundtrack, and 70’s color correction film stock).
Violence has always been a motif in his films, and QT is strangely adamant about not discussing violence, even getting pissed at interviewers when they ask. Why is violence so prevalent in his films? For one, it’s entertaining (in a Roman Coliseum type way). It’s over the top, visually fake (wire work, enormous squibs, etc) and relentless.
But beyond that, violence in Tarantino’s films is cathartic – clearing the messy dramatic structure built up by his plot and dialog. In all his films, his characters get in increasingly dire situations which are totally resolved in the climax by bloodbaths. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained. And in the newer historical remixes, instead of merely the situations built amongst the characters, he’s wiping out entire cultural sins (Nazism, slavery).
Part of the rationale is demonstrating that film has that power. The visceral energy of filmic violence is pretty impressive, perhaps even more impressive than simple narrative. Why can’t that energy directly change narrative? Instead of reality, where violence usually complicates things, why not clean them up?
The film does an impressive job of making the horrors of slavery relevant. Most people have an underlying notion that slavery was horribly bad, but most of the specifics have been forgotten (deliberately or not). Django doesn’t display the bucolic plantations of Gone with the Wind’s Tara.
Instead we see slaves in metal collars, threatened with castration, thrown in metal “hot boxes”, forced to fight to the death, torn apart by dogs, offered up as sexual playthings, sent off to toil in mines. Even more of a villain than DiCaprio’s Candie is Sam L. Jackson’s Stephen, a devilish Uncle Tom who betrays his own kind. And we see the disturbing effects of racial science, phrenology, where Candie saws apart the skull of a dead slave, pointing out bumps in the bone that imply servility.
It’s this twisted pseudo-scientific superiority (so similar in form to Nazi eugenics) that incites in the viewer nauseous hatred.
And so we get our righteous slaughter, Candie and his underlings pumped full of lead, the plantation home literally exploded.
The fact is only a few years later a horrific violence would be visited upon the south. Slavery would be destroyed, at least on paper.
But the hatred and superiority that drove that hellish institution would live on. That’s something even Tarantino’s gleeful revisionism can’t change.
The first teaser for this project was a cell phone snapshot of Day Lewis, shot in profile, in full Abe beard and makeup. The realism was uncanny, the iconic figure on the Rushmore and the penny brought to life.
But the actual film is (mostly) stripped away of all that mythology. We’re left with a study of man confronted with myriad demons and trials, and the gentle deliberateness in which he faces them.
The cinematography is dark, Chiaroscuro, dim rooms lit by fires. The actual logistics of the narrative are also somewhat forgettable – various congressman and cabinet members rejecting details of the proposed amendments.
And aside from a set of cheesy Spielbergian bookends, there are some amazing scenes:
The battle scene itself falls into Civil War cliché, but the actual aftermath, a beautiful crane shot as Lincoln weaves his way on horseback through the wreckage the destruction, is something we don’t see often. The look on his face that acknowledges he was the source of this misery, he was the commander in chief that inflicted this horrendous wound.
In the darkened war rooms, and the telegraph station (manned by two young engineers) as the bearded old men await updates on the battlefield destruction. Lincoln waxes about Euclid and geometric equivalence. Is there mathematical equivalence in politics – do the ends justify the means?
The melancholy and absolute horror of Lincoln’s actual day-to-day existence. His story is an American gothic: the death of his sons, the insanity of his wife, the hatred and racism of his times, the bickering roadblocks of his closest advisers, the ineffectualness of democracy, the gloomy Whitehouse, lit only by fires, dusty daguerreotypes a pale reflection of men sent off to the slaughter, and then that very abattoir just a few miles from the capital.
Lincoln is a heroic figure because he sees all the turmoil and darkness (a ship lost on a dark sea) and instead of raging against it, he’s melancholic and stoic. But he’s a romantic. He takes the raw details about him, mostly horrible, and reframes them in a way that builds the mythology of America. ” Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth… “ There’s grandeur in those words, spoken in a weedy, fatherly, loving cadence, looking out over fields of death. A faint smile, a folded handwritten note tucked away in the stove pipe hat.
Daniel Day Lewis gets praise for his acting, but the most visible thing about the performance is that it doesn’t feel like a performance. It just feels like an actual person of Lincoln filmed on the screen. It’s not Big-A acting like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who forcefully contorts his face or projects his booming voice. It’s the small things, like a shuffling gait, a faint smile through the corners of his mouth, pregnant pauses when he recounts humorous anecdotes.
You stick through the film, which is mostly made up of scenes of bearded old men in ornate rooms talking politics, carried on the weight of Lincoln’s personality.
The film completely bypasses the logistics of the assassination, but captures the horror of the theater with Lincoln’s son Tad. All that’s left is mourning, and surrender. “Now he belongs to the ages.”