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David Denby Calls Spielberg’s Lincoln, Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty the Best of the Year

He writes them in prose (“You provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war”) but begins:

It’s possible that 2012 will be remembered not as the year of the auteur but as the year of inspired writer-director partnerships. The two strongest movies of the year—“Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty”—would have been inconceivable without the extensive collaboration between (as Variety would put it) a scribe and a helmer.

In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” you can see a few (very few) sentimental touches and underlinings of the kind that Spielberg has indulged in the past; most of the movie is sombre and quietly fervent. Lincoln himself, I suppose, can be viewed as a redemptive figure in the mold of Oskar Schindler, though the two men couldn’t be farther apart in manner, body, tactics, and speech. Compared to every other Spielberg film, the use of the camera and color is remarkably restrained. (Think of Spielberg’s other major historical film, “Empire of the Sun,” with its dazzling shimmer, its gold-blue brilliance; I prefer not to think of “Amistad” at all.) The genius of “Lincoln,” as we all have said, is that it’s not an epic or a bio-pic but a charged account of one month in the President’s life—a film about democratic process and legislation, and thus, inevitably, about pressure, patronage, guilt-mongering, deception. All the elements of deal-making.

In this conception, Tony Kushner is as important as Spielberg. What Kushner has done is theatricalize nineteenth-century political behavior—or, perhaps, bring out the theatrical elements that were already there. Spielberg has never directed a movie so rich in language and confrontation, eloquence and insult, as this one. And, in every case, he honors the script, honors the words, as servant and dramatist. “Lincoln” is a joint triumph. Nothing in the auteur theory could have predicted it or could account for it. Anyone who wants to hear more about the year’s movies (which, I admit, is what this post is supposed to be about) should skip the following little polemic.

I would like to deal with a complaint that has emerged about “Lincoln”—that it embraces a “great man theory” of history, ascribing the end of slavery solely to the President and ignoring the tumultuous social movements churning the nation for years prior to the passage of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. That is, ignoring the abolitionists and the outbreaks of revolt among the slaves themselves. The Columbia historian Eric Foner, after citing the abolitionists, continues as follows in a letter to the Times:

The film grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact. The Emancipation Proclamation had already declared more than three million of the four million slaves free, and Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, exempted in whole or part from the proclamation, had decreed abolition on their own.

Even as the House debated, Sherman’s army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives. That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood.

I think Foner’s remarks are interesting but, as a judgment of “Lincoln,” beside the point. I suspect that Foner, while trying to expand the context, and speculate about what might have been, is engaging in the consoling pathos of counterfactualism rather than engaging the inexorability of what happened. After all, for all we know, President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after the assassination, might not have been as eager to end slavery as Lincoln, or as adroit as Lincoln. As the South came back into the Congress under Johnson, wouldn’t Southern legislators have convinced some Northerners that they had been hurt enough and that they should keep their slaves? Certainly, some of the Northern Democrats thought so. Slavery might have survived for years, in which case the Civil War would have felt half-pointless. That wasn’t good enough for Lincoln.

Second, “Lincoln” doesn’t suggest that Lincoln alone ended slavery. The movie shows, in various comments by the radical Republicans, in comments by the Republican Party founder Preston Blair, in the debates in the House, that abolition as a movement has been going on for years. How can Foner not see the narrative brilliance of making the movie about a specific political process in one month of Lincoln’s life? The swirl of social movements outside the White House is repeatedly alluded to, but the movie doesn’t stop to explain all that; it drives forward, like any fine dramatic juggernaut. In a hundred-fifty-minute-long movie, you can’t have everything explained and put in its proper context at once. Foner’s suggested solution to the movie’s omissions would have left it without concentration, drive, focus, excitement. As it is, Spielberg and Kushner showed and implied a lot. What other historical movie is as detailed about a specific political process?

When Foner talks about blacks “sacking plantations,” this is, of course, serious stuff, but if the implication is that African-Americans could have freed themselves, and that Lincoln was unnecessary, I think it’s extremely misleading—a kind of fantasy of slavery ending in a politically more appealing way than it did. But, some outbreaks of revolution apart, it didn’t happen, and it couldn’t have happened. Lincoln’s driving political goal in the movie is to make the amendment become national policy before the war ended. He wanted it in the Constitution before the war ended. He didn’t want slavery just to fade away or sputter out. It had to be put away for all time. That could best be accomplished by a constitutional amendment, not by sporadic outbreaks of revolt. Foner’s inclusiveness is oddly oblivious of this point

The rest:

Zero Dark Thirty:

And now Bigelow and Boal have made a much more complicated film about coercion, deduction, pursuit (all the minutiae of intelligence work), and, again, the authority and tension of the movie, moment by moment, is obviously derived from how real it feels to us—how forceful and dangerous, yet unexaggerated. There are many scenes that expand one’s information but none that strain belief. Bigelow’s earlier movies were pretty and fanciful, and more than a little self-regarding. These two are utterly businesslike, frightening, and far more commanding. There’s a moral as well as aesthetic difference. You have to take seriously what you see (hence the debate over the torture scenes). In brief, Boal’s contribution appears to have produced a new kind of visual imagination in Bigelow—a desire to find, if you will, the fantastic element in realism. The raid on Abbottabad in “Zero Dark Thirty” was shot with filters that reproduce the yellow-green look of figures seen in the dark through night-vision goggles. The effect is uncanny: the figures are shadowy and palpably weighted at the same time. Digital finishing was minimal or non-existent. You’re in the house with the SEALs. The force is deadly but never hyped.

I can’t think of a partnership in Hollywood history remotely like this one. Mark Boal, now thirty-nine, went to Oberlin, where he majored in philosophy. Kathryn Bigelow, sixty-one, was educated in San Francisco and New York, as I said, in art history and theory. These humanists, a man and a woman widely spaced in age, wound up making the two toughest movies about intelligence and military men in American movie history. Among other things, the two movies are a de-facto critique of the kind of pixellated bullshit films that have ruled big moviemaking for over twenty years. Realism can be radical, too. (And a suggested revision to the auteur theory: a director doesn’t become truly great until she or he meets the right writer. Add Jules Furthman to Howard Hawks, and you get “Only Angles Have Wings” and “To Have and Have Not.” Add Thornton Wilder and Ben Hecht to Hitchcock and you get, respectively, “Shadow of a Doubt ” and “Notorious.”)

Argo, “Ben Affleck used crosscutting and standard Hollywood mechanisms to juice and prolong the suspense; his movie is a fine, boisterous entertainment, and I enjoyed it very much.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild, “moved with a fierce, abrasive joy that left one a little stunned.”
Moonrise Kingdom, “had a kind of vigorous gentleness—a tale of escape and survival in a magic place (a New England island), presided over by a factual angel (Bob Balaban), dispensing necessary geological and meteorological data, and unified by Benjamin Britten’s music, which sealedthe primacy of children in their wily innocence.”
The Master, “The scenes between Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were astounding in their freedom from normal screenwriting and performing rhythms—one never knew where they would go. But Anderson was naïve in his assumption that his damaged vet could hold us through a long movie. Many people felt cheated at the end, as if something of infinite value had simply slipped away from them. “The Master” was perhaps the most talented and original failure in years.

And three documentaries:

Three documentaries remain memorable—the lyrical “Detropia,” which found hope in the half-ruined beauty of Detroit’s building and the narrative eloquence of its people; “The Central Park Five,” an account of a miscarriage of justice—the notorious Central Park jogger case, with its forced confessions—which was the easily the most devastating exposure of social and cultural inequality seen in movies in recent years; and the Israeli film “The Gatekeepers” (which will re-open in February), an interview, mixed with documentary footage, of Israel’s internal-security chiefs, the leaders on the Shin Bet since 1980, who turn out to be entirely opposed to the continued national policy of settling the West Bank. If documentaries at their best uncover the truths that normal reporting is too obtuse to notice, these three did their job superlatively well.