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Man of Steel – Kal-El that ends well

The S stands for "Strike a pose": Henry Cavill as Superman

The S stands for “Strike the pose”: Henry Cavill as Superman

It’s been 26 years since we last saw Superman punch a guy on the big screen. The sole attempt to bring back the last son of Krypton since Christopher Reeve last wore the red cape, 2006’s cringe-inducing Superman Returns, saw Supes battling his greatest nemesis yet: an inanimate chunk of rock. That anti-climax is perhaps the greatest of the reasons that film, and the Superman brand, has suffered so hugely in the public consciousness.

Rebooted here with the explosive verve of a Zack Snyder movie, this take on the Superman myth satisfies both those who crave faster-than-a-speeding-bullet aerial fistfight-ery and those who like their Christ allegories with really good hair.

Superman Returns hammered home its Christ metaphor with Superman descending from the sky, resurrected, in cruciform pose. Man of Steel attempts to one-up it, recreating that divine posture—although at a less pivotal moment—and even having a scene where Clark Kent soul-searches in a church, haloed by stained glass. But it’s actually a lot cleverer than this. Clark, born Kal-El, is planet Krypton’s equivalent of the Virgin Birth, a child born through natural reproduction on a dying planet where kids have been eugenixed in Matrix-like pods for generations. Even before the planet crumbles due to the hubris of its ruling elite, Kal-El is already the last hope for his people.

As the fascist General Zod (Michael Shannon) mounts a coup, Kal-El’s father Jor-El (an exceptionally enthusiastic Russell Crowe) embarks on a quest to preserve the history of his people, showing the sort of physicality that escaped Marlon Brando back in 1978. The “Codex” of the Kryptonian people is retrieved and launched into space with the miracle child, just as Zod’s rebellion is brought to a close and the planet devours itself in a bowl of lava-Os.

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring into the distance is really done

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring off into the distance dramatically is really done

After this extended introduction to this slightly different take on the Superman origin, David S. Goyer’s screenplay eschews the chronological tracing of the early years of Jor-El’s life as Clark Kent, of Smallville, Kansas, in favour of cutting to his Bruce Wayne-like journey of self-discovery, helping those in need across America with less than sufficient subtlety for the only alien on Earth. In moments of reflection Clark thinks back to suitable lessons from his youth, the calming tone of his mother Martha (a finely aged Diane Lane) and the baseball coach morality of his father Jonathan (Kevin Costner, back with a very calm and insightful vengeance).

The intercutting flashbacks allow us to get to Clark’s discovery of who he is more quickly, uncovering a lost Kryptonian craft hidden in the Arctic and downloading his birth father’s memories, giving Crowe considerably more—and welcome—screen time. Soon he is wearing the old blue, red and bit o’ yellow and blasting around the planet like he owns the place. But crafty reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the trail of this super-human do-gooder, and a vengeful General Zod emerges from the shadows of space searching for the Codex and the son of Jor-El.

Snyder, a filmmaker whose hitting and missing along the years have never allowed critics to deny his ambition and flair, shows remarkable restraint here, choosing to focus on the scale of the world(s) his story is set in instead of drawing all attention to action and movement; there is not a moment of his signature slow-down/speed-up style of editing, allowing the super-powered Kryptonians to blast around the screen at their own dizzying speeds. The scenes on Krypton could rival Avatar for sheer scale of world-building, while the flashbacks to Kansas are filmed with the tenderness and tone of an Oscar-nominated coming-of-age tale: the director of 300 shooting like Richard Linklater meets Terrence Malick. Who’d have seen it coming?

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

The story is well-known, though there are a few new beats to this drum. Superman is unknown to the people before Zod and his army arrive. Lois is on to the son of Jor-El long before she meets Clark. Kryptonite and Lex Luthor play no part in the tale, although the latter’s industrial might is evident in one scene. A new extreme take on the life lessons Jonathan Kent teaches Clark provides one of the film’s most affecting scenes.

The action and drama are updated suitably, and there are some clever allusions to the world of today, with Superman in one scene forced to down a military drone sent to track his location. But the failure to properly evolve the Daily Planet, the “newspaper” of record, seems like both a missed opportunity and a cop-out. The internet is briefly mentioned as an alternative means to break a story, but there is no feel for the crisis in the industry. The scenes in the Daily Planet offices feel terribly dated, with even the layout of the newsroom floor looking like it’s from the 1970s. As if struck by a magic beam fired by some politically correct supervillian, editor Perry White is now black and Jimmy Olsen is now Jenny—all good progressive things, if only the characters were given anything to do.

The script is both the salvation and damnation of Man of Steel. Goyer, whose finest work rests in The Dark Knight trilogy, created this story with producer Christopher Nolan, taking a break from bats. The Batman Begins structure of the early earthbound sequences revels in this reunion, and Goyer’s screenplay is superb at contrasting the patriarchs and the lessons they imbue upon their shared son. But the dialogue outside of these father/son scenes is often dull, and almost every last one of Goyer’s jokes falls sigh-worthily flat. One military character has an identical arc to a police character in The Dark Knight Rises, almost scene for scene. The burden of two enormous themes—what does it mean to be human? and; what does it mean to be the last of one’s kind?—proves too much for Goyer to balance, and by the end one of these questions has been all but completely dropped.

British actor Henry Cavill, following performances in The Tudors and Immortals, shows himself a strong leading man as the adult Clark Kent. Preposterously handsome, like TV Clark Kent Tom Welling but sculpted in marble, Cavill’s presence dominates when he is not pitched against the two Robin Hoods, who utterly steal the film. Cavill may not be given too many opportunities to show off his talents, but in the few scenes where it counts his face unleashes an intensity and pain that totally sell the moment.

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Amy Adams is less lucky as Lois, working with an awkwardly written version of the character, but still ever-believable as a successful female reporter. Zack Snyder, whose Sucker Punch has been the subject of more women’s studies PhDs than Sylvia Plath (FACT), refrains from making an obvious sex symbol out of Lois, keeping her professionally dressed throughout, and able to give as good as she gets in debate with even the most alpha male of men. If Goyer had been more successful in writing both her character and the love story between Lois and Clark, Adams could no doubt have stolen the show. Michael Shannon is similarly let down by lax characterisation, but his undeniable intensity makes him a riveting Hitler-esque Zod to Terence Stamp’s more Rasputiny take.

Hans Zimmer may be no John Williams, but his score rises at the most crucial moments and lingers in the ear with the same fire, if not the same bombast. This is a film with an almost faultless soundscape, and the sound effects on Krypton help sell it as both a believable world and society. The production design on Krypton is fantastic, with devices using Pin Art-style illustrations to communicate instead of video screens, and the costumes looking like Liberace-in-space, flamboyant but superbly detailed.

This all brings us back to the action, because yes—indeed—Superman does punch someone in the face. Several times. For the most part Snyder conceives a remarkable, rocketing look to his action scenes, although the speed can be hard to follow. Clark’s first battle with the Kryptonians is thrilling but overstays its welcome, and the camera at times is more concerned with framing the logo of an IHOP than showing the fates of those thrown through its windows. A battle with a tentacled robot is a poorly edited and indecipherable mess, but the payoff is immense. A re-enactment of a major scene from Independence Day slips from homage into theft, and the film’s recurring usage of the fatal consequences of buttons being only half-pressed down is insulting to the audience.

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

The carnage of the finale is unspeakable, and the presence of Transformers 3 DP Amir Mokri seems hardly a coincidence, with buildings crumbling and exploding all across Metropolis in a veritable blitzkrieg of CGI. It looks superb, but with Goyer choosing to focus on only three civilians throughout the colossal donnybrook there is little sense of human tragedy in what must be a ground zero of Nagasakian proportions. The Avengers was far more concerned with the average citizen.

Like the film itself, the action sequences are troubled, but overall satisfying. Snyder has not made the magisterial Superman film that people had hoped for, but he has made the most exciting take on the tale yet. Sequels will come, and the end earns them. But no scene is more deserving of a Superman franchise than that moment when Henry Cavill first takes to the skies, as if lifted by Zimmer’s score, and jets across the world, Snyder’s camera slamming from left to right, struggling to keep up with the superhero. It’s the cinematic moment the character has been craving since Action Comics #1.

You won’t need to believe a man can fly; you’ll see it.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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And the Osc’Argo’s to… – Predictions for the 85th Academy Awards

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

Sunday night will see the usual meat parade of celebrities march down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, in their excessive ball gowns and ever-so-slightly personalised tuxedoes, before giving each other gold man-shaped pats on the back for being ever so special – or so the cynics would have you believe.

There are those amongst the cinephiles of this world who do feel the Academy Awards are a meaningless black hole of self-congratulation and commercialism, and they may be right in many respects. But they can’t take the fun away. For the more optimistic film fanatic, the Oscars provide the one night of the year where every person in the world (or so it seems) cares just as much about the movies as we do. Who cares if they cheapen it – at least they care!

The somewhat bold decision by the Academy to have the unpredictable and untested Seth MacFarlane host could well prove a trump card or a bright red self-destruct button. At the very least the quality of lampooning should be stepped up a notch from previous years. Other events of the night differ in the levels of excitement they inspire. A tribute to 50 years of James Bond should provide a quality showreel. A tribute to Hollywood musicals of the last 10 years will surely have less life in it than the roll call of the recently departed.

So how are the awards lining up? Well…

Best Picture

For a long time there this was anyone’s game. Les Misérables seemed a lock, before anyone saw how blandly it was shot. Lincoln was also an early call, which took a dip and then rose back up to the top of the charts. Zero Dark Thirty appears to have waterboarded its own Oscar hopes. Django Unchained has been greeted with bewildering raves from critics and audiences, but it is surely a little eccentric and excessive to warrant a win. Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, both fine films warmly received, seem to have been pushed out by their more realistic and historically themed peers. Amour is the token nod to a master filmmaker, which is all-but-assured the Foreign Language Oscar. Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a similar nod to a newly shining star in Benh Zeitlin, but don’t count it out completely – it’s been a huge hit with critics and would tickle the liberal hearts of Academy voters.

Have… have we won yet?: John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in Argo

But realistically if anything is going to give Lincoln a run for its money it’s Argo. Ben Affleck’s light espionage drama has crept back into pole position after waltzing home with pretty much every best picture (or equivalent) award at every awards show thus far. Despite Affleck not being nominated for Best Director, it is unwise to count Argo out – with no best picture/director split since 2005, the Academy is well overdue such a discrepancy, although it would be the first film to win Best Picture with a directorial nod since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. Evidently, stranger things have happened.

Should win: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Will win: Argo

Best Director

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

This seems an easier one to bite, what with Lincoln one of the top two Best Picture contenders. Steven Spielberg has already a Best Director statue without a Best Picture twin, for Saving Private Ryan, and his work on Lincoln is more than deserving. But so does Ang Lee, for Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi is assuredly the work of full-blooded auteur. David O. Russell seems an unlikely candidate, if only for the scale of his film, and that goes double for Michael Haneke. A Benh Zeitlin win would be a coup and a half. He should be very proud just to be there.

Should win: Ang Lee

Will win: Steven Spielberg

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Abolition impossible: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

I won’t insult your intelligence by writing anything here. Other nominees include Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Hugh Jackman (Les Mis) and Denzel Washington (Flight).

Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

The Oscar Games: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Now here’s a proper contest. So much to play for. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) are fighting to be crowned the new Queen of Hollywood. Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is fighting to be the new Princess. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) is fighting for one last great honour. Naomi Watts (The Impossible) is fighting to stay in movies and not be condemned to television. The tide against Zero Dark Thirty seems to be squeezing Chastain’s hopes, and she will no doubt be back for more in the years to come. Lawrence is here a second time, and seems the likely winner. Riva and Wallis would both be record holders, oldest and youngest winners respectively. With a performance as strong as she gave in Silver Linings however, the same year her Hunger Games was such a surprise hit, Lawrence seems the best bet.

Should win: Emmanuelle Riva or Quvenzhané Wallis

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Oscar, the grouch: Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Coming out of the Golden Globes, Christoph Waltz has momentum behind him, but his character Dr. King Schultz, the highlight of Django Unchained, is perhaps a little too similar to Hans Landa, the character who previously won him this award for Inglourious Basterds. Alan Arkin already has his tokenistic Best Supporting award for Little Miss Sunshine, so he seems an ill-fit. Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) gave his finest performance in over a decade, but it was hardly the finest supporting performance of the year. The disdain the Academy has shown for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will work against Philip Seymour Hoffman. This one has to go to Lincoln’s Tommy Lee Jones.

Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman or Tommy Lee Jones

Will win: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables

Fantinetastic: Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables

There was a lot of talk early on about Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln making her a likely winner, but the performances of Day-Lewis and Jones (and Spader!) have undermined her hopes considerably. Amy Adams gave a chilling performance in The Master, but it is perhaps too dark (and complex) for the Academy’s tastes. Helen Hunt (The Sessions) is surely just delighted to back in the A-list. Jacki Weaver was definitely in Silver Linings Playbook, but I don’t remember a lot else about her performance. No, this is as assuredly Anne Hathaway’s win as anything could be. If Les Mis didn’t convince you of that, surely this video will.

Should win: Amy Adams

Will win: Anne Hathaway

Best Original Screenplay

Tarantino has already taken a few trophies for his Django Unchained script, a fact which continues to baffle me. Mark Boal will no doubt suffer the Zero Dark Thirty backlash. John Gatins (Flight) and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom) seem like seat fillers, but count neither out just yet, especially the latter. This is the one category where Amour could really step-out of the woodwork, and not just be another Best Foreign Language Picture winner and nothing more. Here’s hoping.

Should win: Michael Haneke

Will win: Michael Haneke

Best Adapted Screenplay

With so many exceptional adaptations this year, this could turn out to be the most exciting and unpredictable race of the lot. Chris Terrio (Argo), David Magee (Life of Pi) and Tony Kushner (Lincoln) have all done remarkable work in their adaptations, while David O. Russell has written a truly charming yet affecting work from Silver Linings Playbook. But in terms of transmogrifying a source material into a work of cinema, there seems no greater nominee than Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin’s script for Beasts of the Southern Wild, from Alibar’s one-person play Juicy and Delicious. But who the hell knows that the Academy wants!? Usually everyone, so why is this so hard to call?

Should win: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin

Will win: Chris Terrio or David Magee

Best Animated Feature

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Here’s another unpredictable little venture. DreamWorks’ confusing but beautiful Rise of the Guardians didn’t even make the grade, leaving an odd band of five vying for the Oscar here. Brave is decidedly a weaker entry in the Pixar canon, but it is at times breathtaking to behold. A respectful nod to the studio with a win, or a “must do better” note sent home to the parents? That would leave the major contenders Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. The former has the artistry, the latter the ideas – but both suffer from weak third acts. ParaNorman could scrape in, but its poor box office makes it the most forgettable of the quintet to the untrained eye. That could leave Aardman’s superb The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (I won’t be caught dead using its American title), but it has been largely overlooked in previous awards nominations. Another tough one to call, especially for one that film fans are so surprisingly passionate about.

Should win: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (aka Band of Misfits)

Will win: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Animated Short

Love-struck: Paperman

Love-struck: Paperman

Disney’s utterly delighting Paperman goes up against the surprisingly sweet Simpsons short The Longest Daycare. Both feature playful acts of defenestration, but the former is surely the forerunner in this contest. That said, it would be nice to see PES’s remarkably inventive Fresh Guacamole win. I mean, just look at the damn thing!

Should win: Paperman

Will win: Paperman

Best Foreign Language Film

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Amour

Moving on.

Best Documentary Feature

Due to unfortunate release schedules in these parts and unfortunate me schedules in my own life, I have not seen any of the nominees. Searching for Sugarman seems a firm bet based on word of mouth, but that’s all I can offer.

Best Documentary Short

See above, only shorter!

Best Original Score

This one could get interesting. Skyfall is a surprise nomination for Thomas Newman, and Dario Marianelli seems a wild card for Anna Karenina. Alexandre Desplat’s Argo score was one of the year’s better, while John Williams’s Lincoln was but a pleasant shadow of what the man used create in his prime. In terms of evoking a mood and sounding truly original, nothing should beat Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi score. Although the absence of both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Cloud Atlas from this category is definitely disconcerting.

Should win: Mychael Danna

Will win: Mychael Danna

Best Original Song

That Adele is so hot right now. Not much chance of that going any other way. Expect the manner in which Seth MacFarlane handles his nomination in this category (for ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ from Ted) to be the making or breaking of his performance on the night.

Should win: ‘Skyfall’

Will win: ‘Skyfall’

Best Sound Editing/Mixing

Stop pretending you care.

But for what it’s worth I’m calling both for Life of Pi.

Best Production Design

As was the style at the time: Lincoln’s stellar production design

Another potential shocker that could turn up just about anything. Certainly Anna Karenina was intriguing to behold, and Life of Pi did some remarkable things with its visuals. But bigger is surely better in these sorts of categories, so The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables and Lincoln seem the better calls.

Should win: Anna Karenina or The Hobbit

Will win: Lincoln

Best Cinematography

Shadow play: Roger Deakins's cinematography in Skyfall

Shadow play: Roger Deakins’s cinematography in Skyfall

Roger Deakins has quite horrifyingly never won an Oscar, and while it would be unlikely for him to finally win for a Bond film, it isn’t impossible Skyfall could nab this one. Still, Seamus McGarvey’s luxuriant Anna Karenina and Claudio Miranda’s magisterial work on Life of Pi are almost too much for Deakins to counter. Janusz Kamiński’s bright yet dreary Lincoln looks real and beautiful, but is perhaps too drab for Academy tastes. Robert Richardson’s work on Django is more than anything what creates that film’s style, but away from its frankly gorgeous exteriors, it has not much to offer. Another tough one to call.

Should win: Roger Deakins or Claudio Miranda

Will win: Claudio Miranda

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

"It's the beards": The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“It’s the beards”: The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Oh right, this is still an award. Um… The Hobbit? Actually, going by traditional winners Hitchcock will probably nab this. But no, I’m saying The Hobbit. If only for making Christopher Lee look in his 60s (he’s 90!).

Should win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Costume Design

All dressed up and somewhere to go: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michelle Dockery and Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

2012 was the year of not one but two dreadful Snow White films, but both deserve a bit of credit for the costume work, and here that credit is. The late Eiko Ishioka could well receive a posthumous Oscar for her work on Mirror Mirror, but the film was so frankly despised it seems improbable. Snow White and the Huntsman seems even less likely a winner. With Les Mis vying for a top spot with Lincoln in terms of historical realism, the eye-melting costume work of Anna Karenina, by Jacqueline Durran, has a very good shot at stealing the title, especially if diamonds can count as costuming.

Should win: Anna Karenina or Mirror Mirror

Will win: Anna Karenina

Best Editing

There were no standout examples of editing nominated this year, and thinking back on 2012 it’s hard to think of anything exceptional that has been cut from the list, either. Zero Dark Thirty was the real disappointment, after the phenomenal editing Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker displayed. Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook were both edited efficiently but without flair. While Tim Squyres tied Life of Pi together beautifully, the energy created by William Goldernberg’s editing of the opening 10 minutes of Argo more than makes him deserving of the award.

Should win: Life of Pi or Argo

Will win: Argo

Best Visual Effects

Film school: Life of Pi's astonishing whale

Film school: Life of Pi’s astonishing whale

Snow White and the Huntsman gets another nod here, and will go home empty-handed and undeserving. The Avengers and Prometheus will cancel one another out, leaving this a battle of scale versus creativity. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could win out through sheer force of everything, but it seems unlikely to beat Life of Pi’s controlled, fluid and never utterly in-your-face world building. All the orcish hordes of Middle Earth can’t compete against the colossal might of a leaping whale.

Should win: Life of Pi

Will win: Life of Pi

And that’s the lot of them. How right I’ve been we’ll see on Sunday night. It’s the predictability of the Oscars that makes the upsets all the more shocking, and entertaining, so with any luck, for my sake at least, I’ve been very, very wrong.

If all goes to plan I’ll be live-blogging the event, so be sure to check back here, or follow my Twitter feed. It’s gonna be a long, fun night.

Well, maybe not fun. But long. Definitely long.

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Lincoln – freedom at any cost

Clothed in immense power - Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln surveying the horrors of war

Clothed in immense power: Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln surveying the horrors of war

There is a spirit that runs through much of American history, often buried these days in the politics of our age, of never giving up the fight. Though the USA has often taken far too long to join the fight (world wars, civil rights issues), once it starts, change, and victory, follow rapidly. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the director’s latest historical “epic” and his finest since Schindler’s List, is a study of a man who has already fought enough, yet still fights on.

Opening in the closing days of the Civil War, Lincoln finds the South in retreat and the stately president, played with near-divine presence by Daniel Day-Lewis, doubting he has done enough to secure the Union for after the war. The Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s most famous decree, was not law but presidential order, telling the armies of the Union to free any slaves rescued from the Confederacy. Believing enormous change can come sooner rather than later, Lincoln sees the president attempt, against the recommendation of his advisors and his wife, to push through a legally binding end to slavery.

Showing remarkable restraint by a director who has never before known the meaning of the word, Spielberg ignores the battles and sieges of an undoubtedly cinematic war in favour of telling a story of political machinations and social justice. He and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the playwright behind the magnificent Angels in America who also co-authored Spielberg’s troubled Munich, are far more concerned with the man beneath the stovepipe hat and his surely impossible mission than with the conflict between brothers that tore America apart. This is character drama of the highest order, which also finds plenty of room for grandstanding speeches and backdoor political shenanigans.

With outstanding attention to period detail, Lincoln slowly but rhythmically clicks along, building towards the Congressional vote that will decide the future of a nation and allow Lincoln to end his war. The film feels like a three-episode arc of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, with fluctuations between strong drama and jaunty, exciting meetings between his political moles and less staunch Democrats who may be swayed to vote for the abolition of slavery.

Linc'dIn: David Strathairn and Daniel Day-Lewis discuss political strategy

Linc’dIn: David Strathairn and Daniel Day-Lewis discuss political strategy

The sets are fantastic, with the floor of Congress superbly lit by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, while the interior of the White House is swamped in dark colours, as if in mourning for a country at war, a people enslaved and the president’s recently deceased son William.

Day-Lewis gives a towering performance in the lead role, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders while still being given over to telling amusing anecdotes and showing moments of human weakness. He eschews the traditional Gregory Peck-style deep-voiced impersonation in favour of a historically accurate, higher-pitched and somewhat raspy voice that carries Lincoln’s pain and exhaustion perfectly, while also showing that voice as a hurdle the president can overcome when passion and fury require it of him.

Giving Day-Lewis a run for his money is Tommy Lee Jones, as Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a bullish radical more devoutly anti-slavery than the president himself. His cutthroat performance, overlaying a powerfully but subtly humanist character, carries a huge amount of the film’s emotional punch. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field is strong, though prone to melancholic melodrama that feels out of place in her scenes with Day-Lewis’s restrained performance.

Several of the supporting players convince, with David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Henderson and particularly James Spader – as moustachioed political lobbyist/shyster William Bilbo – proving themselves ideal casting. Jared Harris is sadly underused as his historical doppelganger Ulysses S. Grant, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt sleepwalks his way through the underwritten role of the Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert.

Punctuated with fine moments of humour, and unimposingly accompanied by John Williams’s suitably swelling score, Lincoln is never less than a brilliant period political drama. Through its balanced script, restrained direction and its superb central performance, it lets the all-too-often overshadowed goodness of the American dream shine earnestly forth.

4/5

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