American history X: Lincoln, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty

26 January 2013

The good, the bad and the ugly: the last of the Best Picture Oscar nominees to be released in the UK are a mixed bag indeed.

Confirmations of preconceptions abound this week. Following Les Misérables' all-singing summary of the French Revolution earlier this month, there remained only a third of the nine films up for next month's Best Picture Oscar to be released in the UK. Each is preceded by a certain directorial prestige, and brings with it its own approach to history: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln deals with the crucial days leading up to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, two months into US President Lincoln's second term in office and four years after the beginning of the American Civil War; Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained mimics and melds genres to tell a tall tale of emancipatory revenge set in Mississippi two years prior to the beginning of the American Civil War; and Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty arrived in US cinemas a mere eighteen months after the events depicted in its final scenes occurred - the night raid by US Navy SEALs, that is, upon the Pakistani compound in which Osama bin Laden was found and shot dead after a decade-long search following 9/11. Given the names and subject matters involved, it was nigh-on impossible to approach any of these films free of ideas as to how they might turn out; as it happens, there have been few surprises. (Warning, the following post reads desperately unhip.)

Following last year's amiable if schmaltzy War Horse, Lincoln sees its director tread the ostensibly more serious territory to which he has intermittently returned, since The Colour Purple (1985), with Schindler's List (1993), Amistad (1997) and Munich (2005); the first and third of these dealt particularly with the social position of black people in America at two different points in history, and are complemented by the latest work, which was also a long-term pet project for Spielberg. Partly adapted, by Munich's co-scriptwriter Tony Kushner, from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln as well as a number of other books, Lincoln stars the ever-discerning Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th US President, and is a dense and detailed account - with obligatory familial subplots and a perhaps unnecessarily extended coda - of the Lincoln administration's successful efforts to push through, in the House of Representatives, a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.

Set during the fourth year of the Civil War and amidst growing tensions within the Republican Party, Lincoln depicts a talky swamp of persuasion and conviction with both an intelligence and a keen sense of anecdotal immersion entirely befitting its eponymous figure, a man as famous for his oratory skills as for his intransigent compassion. Appreciably high production values match the subject matter at hand. For a film containing the notable faces of the time portrayed, the cast is excellent: Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican and fierce abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and an entire host of supporting actors, including James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Walton Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Day-Lewis leads this impeccable ensemble in a complex play-off between rise-to-the-occasion doggedness and just-get-it-done calculation; intense and brooding one moment, Day-Lewis's Lincoln also offers (indeed, seemingly depends upon) moments of charming levity and a raconteur's mischief, drawing upon his formidable education and employing jokes to divert opponents and flatten doubters. With Chaney-like chameleonism, the actor commands every mid-shot and close-up on cue, but appears equally happy - particularly early on - to share wider shots with others; in slight contradiction to the film's title, Kushner's script and Spielberg's direction respectfully situate Lincoln in a political and social framework that transcends mythologising individualism.

In fact, save perhaps for bedroom showdowns between Mr and Mrs Lincoln, interiority is rarely accommodated here. Restricted to the dim confines of polished yet murky interiors - shot with effortless maturity by Janusz Kaminski - Kushner and Spielberg trust the material itself and rarely rely upon cut-aways and reverse-shots to evoke meaning: when someone has something to say, they're given time to say it, and the emphasis is never upon the listener. In a film as much about rhetoric as the meaning of one's words, meanwhile, Kushner's retention of period speech makes for a presumably authentic density that is often overwhelming but always fascinating.

In condensing its timeframe to less than a month of story-time, Lincoln presumes prior knowledge with regard to the political complexities that shaped and defined the Civil War. The upshot of such narrative concentration is that the film is open to misreadings, such as those claims that the film pays lip service to emancipation while rendering black agency secondary to Lincoln and his all-white adminstration, or that the film argues such emancipation can happen only through a constitutional framework.

But the politics in Lincoln take place in dingy backrooms rather than spot-lit lecterns, and so the film perhaps suggests that an amendment of an unjust constitution requires coercion and foresight as much as the spontaneities of historical hazard. Indeed, while this is only one of numerous crucial episodes in the run up to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the film grounds its political intrigues throughout to the Civil War itself, which is why the question of slavery is never reducible to racial prejudice in the first place. Without denying or omitting the social presence of irrational hatred, for instance, Lincoln - to the credit of Kushner and Spielberg - reminds us that slavery and its correlative racial prejudice have their roots in economic interests: namely, the capitalist development of private property.

No such reference may be found in Django Unchained, in which history is treated with casual disdain. Here, slavery is upheld with a sniggering and cartoonish enthusiasm by folk who punctuate their racial slurs with gleeful spits and loquacious and vacuously self-vindicating history lessons. From the very start of this film, you know who you're meant to hate and who you're meant to root for, and so the 165-minute running time is somewhat indefensible, peppered as it is by predictable monologues and belated bloodshed. The former, in fact, make us long for the latter: here is a film in which every putdown, slur and hostile remark - to say nothing of a slow-motion moment in which a pack of dogs is set upon a black slave until he is dead - are written and delivered with such hand-rubbing relish that we have no other choice but to laugh, exhale or fist-pump with relief when the cathartic payback finally arrives.

Two years prior to the Civil War, German dentist-cum-bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) finds Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave to whom he promises freedom in return for the positive identification of three bigoted brothers wanted dead or alive (ergo dead) by the law. Following this and some meandering expansion, the film introduces its primary narrative: Schultz and Django travel to Candyland, a slave plantation in Mississippi owned by one Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio) to purchase Django's long-lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Once there, a lengthy dinner ensues; suspicions then tensions rise; a bloodbath is unavoidable.

At his best when establishing then playing with power relations through dialogue (and, underratedly, the silence around it), Tarantino assembles a talented cast of performers here to act out his adolescent and over-funded fantasies. For the writer-director, pastiche is not only a form of flattery, but a careerpath writ large. (On a side note, though we all expected it to be a less serious film than Lincoln - if a serious film at all - who'd have predicted Django would be so crushingly outshone by that film's conversational stand-offs? To be sure, none of Tarantino's lipsmacking exchanges can match the loaded way in which Sally Field's Mary Todd delivers a mere word such as "prosecutorial" to Tommy Lee Jones's Thaddeus Stevens.)

Meticulously staged and seductively edited, Django Unchained is masturbatory tomfoolery at best; unfortunately, we also live in an age in which intellectualism is apparently left at the door of the auditorium, in which hybrid-homages are somehow inherently beyond criticism, in which goddammit Tarantino makes such fun films that aren't meant to be taken seriously (and aren't they technically great?)! In stark contrast to Lincoln, Tarantino's film evinces a deeply unpleasant view of mankind, one for which a murderous bloody rampage is the go-to solution. Cameos come thick and fast: Franco Nero, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Robert Carradine, Russ Tamblyn and more are all wasted in blink'n'miss walk-ons, while Tarantino himself hogs a late scene with a (perhaps deliberately) atrocious Australian accent.

Though Tarantino is clearly on a downward slope - even forgetting the more vulgar elements of his work, set-pieces, soliloquys, dramatic intensity and narrative coherence have all been sacrificed in the name of apparent all-out fun here - he and his supporters don't seem to care that much. Django was always unlikely to convert me to its cause precisely because it doesn't appear to have one: given the limitations of the fundamental ingredients decided upon by Tarantino, it would be too much to ask for anything resembling a good film.

This is largely the case, also, with Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, whose ground-level perspective of the CIA's ongoing efforts to find and assassinate Osama bin Laden after 9/11 precludes historical distance and political insight. In fact, the less said about the film the better. On a merely artistic level, however, Zero Dark Thirty's opening scene alone tells us that it is to be a film more interesting to talk about than to watch: as CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures a hostage for information regarding the whereabouts of high-ranking al-Qaeda members, Bigelow opts for the mere impression of things, relying upon Greig Fraser's shaky handheld close-ups of a covered face being waterboarded alongside reaction shots of newbie Maya (Jessica Chastain). The result is something resembling ambiguity, which is thereafter denied by a causal narrative whose inclusion of subsequent al-Qaeda attacks double as reminders of the film's and US foreign policy's narratorial purpose. Since there are frankly more important issues to rush out and make a film about than bin Laden's death - not to mention better sides to take when covering it - one must ask: who gives a shit?

Zero Dark Thirty is the kind of film in which its sparse establishing shots come as a relief (my favourite was that of Gdansk's shipping port). The film is the narrative equivalent of what David Bordwell calls intensified continuity: once you've made the decision to tell things from the ground, any hint of perspectivisation blows your cover, seems incongruous; it also, tellingly, demands a more sophisticated comprehension of events and the social and political forces informing them, which in turn demands a level of artistry higher than hack. As such, the film is messily assembled and mannerist: Bigelow edits actors instead of directing them (but for one scene, Chastain's nomination for the Best Leading Actress Oscar appears to be based on an entire film's worth of reaction shots). Mark Boal's script, and Bigelow's visual realisation of it, insists upon a procedural linearity and factual density that quickly become insipid if not outright stupid. Assuming the blinkered viewpoint of an increasingly obsessive field agent without structuring any sort of framework through which to gain some moral or emotional distance, Boal/Bigelow only reinforce - and perhaps unavoidably fetishise - her naivety.

Indeed, like their progressively hardened, genre-made protagonist (she isn't "the girl who fucks, it's unbecoming"), Bigelow and Boal seem to fully believe that if you hum a tune long enough, it'll catch on - and if it doesn't, hum until it does. But what, exactly, is meant to catch on here? Is this meant to be a character study of some sort? If so, of whom? By the time Zero Dark Thirty ends, we know nothing more about Maya than we did at its start - is character, somehow (and in stark contrast to Kushner and Spielberg's approach), that which is left when all else is removed/avoided? In terms of its subject matter and its historical purpose, though, the film appears at best to be pointless and at worst reprehensible. But of course, Bigelow is quoted to have said the film is apolitical.

We've been here before. Drawing on the success of their previous collaboration, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008), Bigelow and Boal are only extending here the eyes-down, feet-forward approach to character first evinced by that film, which the makers also claimed to be apolitical. As a film that makes its timeframe and references to real-life events explicit, this is merely disingenuous. When funded and celebrated by an entire industry, however, it contributes to the harmful and false notion that apoliticism isn't in itself a political stance: in denying a framework in which to probe and question events depicted in your film, you deny the very possibility of probing and questioning. More specifically, Bigelow and Boal have helped sanitise the US government's criminal escapades as well as the CIA and its ongoing illegal procedures; eliciting empathy for its employees, even by suggesting their eventual detachment from society and subsequent alienation, is of no use without a wider perspective.

After viewing The Hurt Locker earlier this month, I asked why such apoliticism is to be aspired to and even applauded. Defending my initial response to others, I also claimed that "as a conscious conceptualisation of how you respond to the world", an artwork "is the outcome of so many different choices (framing, editorial, etc.) that the artistic equivalent of apoliticism is impossible. Such a non-commital stance doesn't wash with a film clearly set in Iraq at a time in which the filmmakers' own government is waging an illegal war there... The implications of this 'newsfeed filmmaking' reach their moral culmination with Zero Dark Thirty."

Finally, then, a lengthier quotation, from myself, written in relation to The Hurt Locker but now equally applicable to Zero Dark Thirty, taken from the same exchange already linked to:

That I think the film sanitises war, and the Iraq War in particular, by not speaking against it, is unfortunate. That this sanitising artwork has been lauded to the extent that it has is indicative of an intellectual crisis, because the implication is that "artistic objectivity" of this sort is not only attainable, but is of inherent merit and is a thing to be admired. Because an artwork's inherent subjectivity does not, thank heavens, preclude it from finding and expressing truths about the world, the last thing we need is a culture of "false objectivity", whereby the decision not to comment either way on something as crucially relevant to our lives as the US government's imperialist endeavours is an admirable artistic trait. No artwork is made in a vacuum, and no artwork is consumed in one; I can't ignore the political baggage that comes with a film like The Hurt Locker, precisely because its makers ask me not to, by setting their work in a definite historical period - one through which, furthermore, I am currently living. In responding to the world, an artist contributes to it. That's the dialectical foundation upon which art exists at all. If we're celebrating apoliticism, then all we would need to do is treat the film as an abstract succession of pretty images and sounds. But apoliticism is itself political, and I've no interest in perpetuating it or celebrating those works that aspire to it, because I think they're at best unhelpful and confused, and at worst dangerous and dishonest.

Ps. As Lincoln says at one point in the Kushner and Spielberg film (quoting someone else, if I recall): "I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I'm too lazy to stop."

Pps. Some further reading on artistic decision-making as an inherently political process here.