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Thursday 30 October 2014

Two great visions of the American Dream

OSCAR contenders are finally here to slug it out.

LINCOLN

Historical drama. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley. Directed by Steven Spielberg Cert 12A

Well, we're now into the business part of the year, a time when the studios have rolled out their Oscar hopefuls which are finally making it into cinemas on this side of the Atlantic, and this week we're treated to a brace of serious pieces of cinema with over a dozen Oscar nominations between them.

The heavyweight combination of Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and a stellar supporting cast in a story about America's most revered president means that Lincoln comes with a gravitas that demands attention.

The third Spielberg film to deal with the subject of slavery — following on from The Color Purple and Amistad — this is a curious piece of work, being neither a conventional biopic of the Illinois lawyer-turned-politician nor an account of the final days of the Civil War.

In fact, what we have here is a political procedural, a dialogue-heavy piece which focuses on Lincoln's attempts to push through the 13th Amendment to the US constitution and abolish slavery, despite the resistance of the Democrats and factions within his own party.

Those naughty scamps who devise the TV trailers would have you believe that this is a war movie but the only glimpses of action at all come in the first three minutes, with another tiny flash of artillery fire after about two hours or so. Glory this ain't.

However, those who fancy a couple of hours of political wrangling and chicanery are in for a treat, especially given the uniformly excellent standard of the performances. Day-Lewis, as you'd expect, is superb, portraying Lincoln as a driven man, determined to push through the amendment despite the fact that the Confederacy is on the verge of collapse. His ‘end slavery or end the war' dilemma is brilliantly conveyed.

Alongside the lead, Tommy Lee Jones is a tower of strength as Thaddeus Stevens, the President's staunchest ally in the Republican Party, with the great David Strathairn also magnificent as Secretary of State William Seward.

There are times when Lincoln can come across as an extended civics lesson, or perhaps an episode of The West Wing performed in period costume and with ZZ Top beards, but it is an excellent piece of work. Despite concentrating on the last four months of Lincoln's life, which means that we know what's going to happen before we even enter the cinema, it holds the attention, with Steven Spielberg's masterful storytelling displayed once again for all the world to see.



ZERO DARK THIRTY

Thriller. Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Cert 15A

It's certainly a week for procedurals where the audience knows the outcome beforehand. Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, teaming up again after their Oscar-winning efforts on The Hurt Locker, began this movie intending it to be about the ongoing hunt for Osama bin Laden until events in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1, 2011 obliged them to rewrite the entire third act of the film.

A demanding (157 minutes) but gripping story seizes the viewer right from the off, with Bigelow choosing to show a black screen as actual radio transmissions and phone calls from the 9/11 attacks are played, leaving the audience in no doubt as to why the CIA are determined to deploy every method and resource at their disposal to track down the man responsible.

Two years on we're introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer new to the field and seeing at first hand how the organisation is going about securing information as she observes her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) beating and waterboarding an al-Qaeda suspect at an undisclosed ‘black site' somewhere in the Middle East.

It's an uncomfortable watch, yet it's hard to disagree with the director's defence that to fail to depict such torture would be a dereliction of her duty as a storyteller.

Based on a CIA agent still working undercover, Chastain's portrayal of Maya is a study in steely resolve. Cleverly, the writers don't give us too much on her by way of a back story, but it's a fair bet that most viewers will come to the conclusion that her character lost friends or family on 9/11.

It can be difficult to sustain tension over such a lengthy movie when so much of the onscreen activity involves characters trying to monitor phones and instigate surveillance operations,

but Bigelow and Boal manage to keep the momentum going, regularly switching locations and inserting a couple of highly effective set-pieces to show how dangerous it could be for agents operating in the field.

By the time we reach the final third, and the attack on bin Laden's compound, the stage has been well-set, with the assault an exceptionally accomplished piece of action movie-making. Zero Dark Thirty could have turned out to be a piece of propaganda, but it definitely doesn't fall into that category. Led by another outstanding performance from Jessica Chastain and not forgetting the contributions of Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty is a compulsive and thrilling film.



ALSO RELEASED THIS WEEK….

Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to his action roots in The Last Stand, Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez star in Point Blank remake Parker and a host of stars appear in comedy mash-up Movie 43. Alas, none of these were screened for the Irish media. As usual, draw your own conclusions.

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