Lincoln is dull of its own importance

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Serious money for success at this year’s Oscars seems to be on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (Cert 12A).

Serious being the operative word because it’s a film that describes in minute detail a key moment in American history and honours a national hero.

Lincoln is not a biopic of the 16th president of the United States but concentrates on a period towards the end of his life when in 1865 he manouvred the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution through the House of Representatives and thus formally abolished slavery.

The film has been nominated for 10 Baftas and 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Spielberg and Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis.

It is already a critical and commercial success, having grossed more than $156 million at the US box office.

It will be interesting to see if it does as well in the UK, however, because the political background and the characters who no doubt are important figures in American history mean little to us. Still, not knowing exactly what was going on didn’t prevent West Wing being popular over here.

Whisper it softly but Lincoln has rather a lot of dull passages. For a Spielberg movie there is remarkably little action with most of it consisting of political debate in dark smoke-filled rooms or the debating chamber.

That’s not to say it is without drama with a race against time to secure the necessary votes – Lincoln is determined to see it through before the end of the Civil War which he fears would see the issue buried.

The best thing about Lincoln is the performance of Day-Lewis who not only looks like the picture of Lincoln we have of the gaunt and bearded figure but fleshes him out into a warm and humorous character as well as exuding grandeur and stature.

And there are some fine supporting turns including a bewigged Tommy Lee Jones as firebrand Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Lincoln’s disturbed wife grieving after the death of one son and adamant that another, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doesn’t follow him to the grave by enlisting in the war.

David Strathairn is the sturdy Secretary of State William Seward, and James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson provide some welcome light relief as a trio of lobbyists drumming up anti-slavery votes for Lincoln.

Though Lincoln is a true story, consideration of how much of the detail is strictly factual will not really concern many people. Not so Zero Dark Thirty (Cert 15) which tells a story of recent history – the 10-year operation by the CIA to track down and eliminate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

It has found itself embroiled in controversy about its veracity, firstly the suggestion that torture played a part in its success and the notion that one obsessive woman was responsible for the happy outcome (which is how we are expected unquestioningly to view it).

It’s hard, but if possible it’s best to treat Zero Dark Thirty (the title is military code for the time of bin Laden’s death) purely as a thriller.

There are three distinct phases to the narrative. In the first part we see Jessica Chastain as Maya, a CIA analyst arriving at “a black site” in Pakistan and witnessing waterboarding practised by colleague Dan (Jason Clarke).

Then for the main part of the film the focus is on the painstaking research to find a clue as to the whereabouts of their prey. When they identify bin Laden’s courier Maya must battle with the Washington hierarchy led by James Galdolfini to get them to act on her hunch.

Finally, after two hours, comes the really exciting part of the movie with the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan filmed through night vision cameras with barely audible dialogue. Though we know the outcome, the suspense is utterly compelling which is testimony of how well it works as a thriller.

An animated film that is very definitely not aimed at the family market is The King of Pigs (Cert 15) from Korea which matches the ultra violence that is a hallmark of the country’s live action cinema.

Hwang Kyung-min and Kung Jong-suk are former classmates who meet after 15 years to look back on schooldays and hiding from each other their current states.

At school the pupils divided into two groups. The Dogs who came from well-to-do backgrounds exercised a reign of terror over the underprivileged Pigs while teachers turned a blind eye. As Pigs Jong-suk and Kyung-min endured daily misery until the arrival of a student, Kim Chul, who offered a token of defiance which earned him the title of King of the Pigs even though it proved futile in the end.

The flashbacks of schooldays eventually reveal an incident that has marked the two men for life as they return to the site where the shocking truth of what happened there is revealed.

With echoes of Lord of the Rings, Yeun Sang-ho’s film is a damning portrait of the cruelty, corruption and violence it suggests percolates throughout South Korean society presented in a strange mix of realism and surrealism. The rough and ready animé is surprisingly effective but the narrative is at times confusing (not helped by crude sub-titles) and unremittingly grim.