The Good, the Ugly and the Bad

Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty deserve awards, Hitchcock is dull and Les Miserables in unbearable

Peter Whittle

Great screen presence: Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

The media is awash with acres of red carpet at the moment, for this is what has come to be known as the awards season, and by the time you read this you will know (unless you’re on a space mission) who and what has won the Oscar for Best this and that. I’m not sure that Standpoint readers put much store by all this; doubtless for you the endless sight of all those nameless starlets striking that odd “S” pose for photographers causes more irritation than loose-tongued celebrity-worship. But the flashbulbs and strapless gowns mask what this year has been a very strong line-up of films which, due to their nominations, will be accorded an extended life at your local cinema. The Oscars are increasingly about money and marketing, and being a winner or even a nominee can mean a film doubles its box-office take if it just hangs around a bit longer than usual.

So you can probably still catch Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Hitchcock and Les Misérables. Should you bother? Critics here have been rather grudging in their praise for Spielberg’s latest venture into American history, giving credit where it’s due to Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of the virtually mythical figure of Honest Abe, yet weary of what they see as a hagiography. I’m not one of them. Lincoln is solemn, certainly, and respectful and doesn’t shy away from the seriousness of its subject matter — an approach which is increasingly alien to a culture like ours which is frightened of presenting heroism or greatness, especially of the political kind, and breathes a sigh of relief when feet of clay emerge. American culture in general is not quite so far down this road, as the very existence of Lincoln the mainstream movie attests. If you doubt this then it’s worth pondering that, remarkably, there has yet to be a cinema feature about Churchill’s finest hour (Young Winston, made over 40 years ago now, dealt with the beginnings).

The film concentrates on the president’s attempts to pass the all-important amendment to abolish slavery and the political machinations this required. There is little in the way of battle-scene action and a hell of a lot of smoke-filled wood-panelled interiors. If you want a realistic portrayal of history then this is how it should be. Some have found this all too talkative, an approach which will interest only politics junkies. But what could be arcane is turned into an involving story by exceptionally clear-headed writing (by the playwright Tony Kushner) and virtually faultless performances which help demarcate the distinct personalities involved. Sounding somewhat like Bill Clinton (Lincoln apparently had rather a reedy voice), Day-Lewis has the inbuilt screen presence to make his portrayal effortlessly the centre of the film without being overly stentorian. If, by the time you read this, he has indeed walked off with a gold statuette then it is utterly deserved.

Spielberg has been criticised — sometimes rightly — for making over-produced, sentimentalised pictures, and some of his forays into history, such as Schindler’s List and Amistad, have been almost too beautifully rendered for their terrible subject matter. But Lincoln avoids this, offering a straightforward narrative with little visual embellishment. Only at the end, after the  assassination has taken place off-screen and we then unnecessarily see the president on his death bed, does it stumble.

Unemotional to the point of coldness is Zero Dark Thirty, director Katherine Bigelow’s account of the hunt for Osama bin  Laden, a film which has whipped up protest from all political sides in the US; Republicans complain that its timing amounts to typical liberal support for Obama from Hollywood, and left-leaning critics are outraged by what they see as its justification for the use of torture. Bigelow could legitimately claim that she must have got something right, though I’d suggest that the impression which will be taken away by the average audience is that the intelligence gained from waterboarding sessions played an important part in tracking down bin Laden. (Senator John McCain is among those who have hotly disputed this.)

An obsessive female CIA operative (Jessica Chastain) is at the centre of the film, but the quasi-documentary style (again, there are a fair number of meetings round tables) prevents anything too personal intruding. It is remarkably matter-of-fact, its excessive length almost justified by the brilliantly directed and suspenseful assault on the bin Laden compound; and the lack of preachiness and hand-wringing over a topic where one could, on past form, fairly expect it (this is, after all, Hollywood) brings a hugely welcome, counter-intuitive sigh of relief.

Zero Dark Thirty could fairly be described as being “ripped from the headlines”, but not all real events are up to film treatment. The problems which surrounded the making of Psycho, which form the narrative thread of Hitchcock, are I’m afraid revealed as not amounting to a whole hill of beans. This top-heavy movie has a prosthetically disguised Anthony Hopkins as the director sparring with Helen Mirren as his overlooked wife Alma, both of them unnecessarily big names for such a slight project. Psycho struggled to get funding — hardly a big deal in film-making circles — and there are a few slight allusions to Hitchcock’s well-documented obsessions and hang-ups. It strains to make a drama out of not much of a crisis by introducing a possible extra-marital flirtation for Alma. In other words there’s a huge amount of straw here and not many bricks, so the chief pleasures to be had are those offered by the usual period movie — the clothes, the cars and the social manners. This is a DVD time-passer at the very most.

Last and least (but up for countless Oscars) is the phenomenon which is apparently reducing the cinemagoing nation to tears — the screen version of Les Misérables, which has been running on stage for a trillion years all over the world. I like musicals, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a repressed emotional cripple (I find it hard to watch Bambi) but this marathon of synthetic pathos was almost unendurable. In your service I lasted, stony-faced, for a good two hours, but feared that the will to live would be sapped completely if I had to stay even for the remaining 40 minutes. The performances weren’t especially bad, and the look of it has a certain grandeur, but you can’t get round the source material: the music is mostly terrible, bland yet full of all that empty yearning of the power ballad. It starts off melodramatically and pretty much goes on in that vein. It is the movie version of those grief shrines which crop up at the sides of our roads. If you really, really want to cry and aren’t much concerned about what, then maybe this is one for you.

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