Blown away by three of the best, not of 2012, but of my lifetime experience!
Don’t see too many movies in theatres these days. Oh, the local venue is quite deluxe, actually, a phenomenal upgrade from what used to be available close to home.
But, as has been noted everywhere, Hollywood simply isn’t making product for any beyond the prime market: males 14—34. I’m male, but quite some years beyond “prime”.
Yet in the space of just two months, from Thanksgiving week until my birthday January 21, I was fortunate enough to see three manifestly wonderful films: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.
I am not a critic, like my young cousin, Matthew, nor an educator on the topic, like cousin Lee, nor have I ever played one on television, like my hero for more than 45 years, Roger, so the following impressions are highly personal, and informed mainly by my life experience and absolutely not by any chops as an expert cineaste.
To end any suspense, here are the three films.
I inherited my interest in all things Lincoln from my late father, for whom this enthusiasm was substantial all of his life. Carl Sandburg’s multi-volume biography was prominent on our bookshelf, and I wasted no time as a child in absorbing its lessons. My dad made certain that, as Illinois residents, we toured the house in Springfield, and the log cabin in Salem.
Lincoln scholarship has advanced from those Sandburgian days, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a much more recent history of the wartime President and key members of his cabinet, that I confess I haven’t yet read, was the inspiration for Tony Kushner’s (writer) and Steven Spielberg’s (director) masterful Lincoln, that, talk about inspired, dissects the last few months of our most iconic president’s life when he campaigned ever-so-adroitly to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery.
This amazing film tells a (somewhat fictionalized? This is a continuing conversation…) story of one young CIA analyst’s (Jessica Chastain) quest for Osama Bin Laden. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (winner [twice!] for The Hurt Locker three years ago), it is, throughout its 2½-hour length (flew by, actually!), a gripping, compelling, riveting (running out of adjectives here) experience.
Yes, there are some unpleasant moments in the first 45 minutes, as the questioning of suspects utilizes the infamous (and, until now, only imagined) waterboarding form of torture, but I swallowed hard and accepted the scenes as a cost of witnessing the process, much as this country needed to swallow hard and accept that intense interrogation seemed appropriate in the circumstances following 9/11.
This “RomCom,” or, perhaps, “dramedy” stars Bradley Cooper, no stranger to the former genre, and surprisingly effective Jennifer Lawrence, whose roles prior to this film (“Winter’s Bone,” “Hunger Games“) were more soulfully dramatic. The premise is that Cooper is released from eight months in a psychiatric hospital, where he was treated for bipolar disorder, and while back at home pines for his ex-wife, whose ugly betrayal ignited the events that led to his hospitalization. Lawrence plays a very young widow with issues beyond that sad state, who engages Cooper in her quixotic mission to compete in a local ballroom dancing event.
That’s a bare bones synopsis that just scratches the surface of the very profound depths explored by this David O. Russell film. For one thing, Pat Solitano’s father is portrayed by Robert De Niro, who along with the actress Jacki Weaver as the mother, were both nominated for Academy Awards in the supporting actor category. (This film was the first in many years to receive nominations for all four of its principal actors, as well as for Best Picture and Russell’s direction and adapted screenplay among its eight nominations).
So, “Mr. Critic-wannabe,” Why These Three?
So, the context is important here. As noted, we just don’t go to the trouble of seeing that many films in theatres these days. The only other one I recall this year, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, an exception to the juvenile males policy, was well done, in rather a twee way, but it had nowhere near the emotional punch thrown by each of the subject three. What got us out there, and why were they so impactful?
Great acting (and I’ll get to that) usually doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Acting talent can trump indifferent writing. An example is Meryl Streep in just about anything. And okay, some independent films are all improvisation (and, one of my favorite current television series, “Parenthood,” [NBC! Renew!!] has as a trademark an improvised feel to a number of its two-person scenes), but all three of my impactful films display every sign of very, very careful writing.
For Lincoln, Tony Kushner, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter started with the cited historic material, and created a simply wonderful drama. Mark Boal wrote the screenplay for Zero Dark Thirty. It’s quite apparent that he has an insight into our wars of the ‘Naughts, as he won two Academy awards (writing and producing) for a previous project with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, the searing exploits of a squad of explosives disposal technician-soldiers in Iraq. For Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell adapted Matthew Quick’s novel (no, I didn’t read it), and I read an interview with Russell where he emotionally disclosed a kinship with the story due to having a troubled child of his own. It shows.
Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook: all wonderful actors. For Lincoln, they stepped up their game. Great writing requires great acting to bring it out, and they all did phenomenal work. Daniel Day Lewis, especially, channeled the 16th president in a way I had never before seen. Too often a caricature, Abe Lincoln (impossibly tall, black beard, stovepipe hat – hey, he’s on the five-dollar bill for heaven’s sake!), he was fully alive here, thinking, scheming, hurting, parenting, winning. Similarly well known to posterity, Mary Todd Lincoln has been too often portrayed as maddening, and mad. Sally Field humanized her tremendously effectively. Jones intelligently portrayed furious abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in a most moving way. Just breathtaking acting, on everyone’s part.
Zero Dark Thirty has a standout performance by Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain as obsessive analyst Maya, and an excellent supporting ensemble, including a personal favorite, Jason Clarke, as a CIA operative neck-deep in waterboard torture.
Silver Linings Playbook! The acting here was superlative to the extent that, it bears repeating that all four principal actors have been nominated in their respective categories, a first in a zillion years. But I must call out Bradley Cooper, who absolutely floored us.
The photogenic Mr. Cooper, best known previously for his light and deft Rom-Com roles (and, for me, for the ill-fated Will Tippin in “Alias” all of those years ago), deeply inhabits Pat Solitano in an uncanny way. And, I know bipolar disorder.
Our terrific younger son has wrestled with this illness since long before it was finally diagnosed. With (finally!) a decent medical professional on the case and the right medication in the right dosage, he has clawed his way back to feeling better and back on the road toward his life’s ambition.
The first twenty minutes or so of Silver Linings had my wife and I looking at each other: “What are we doing here? We go to the movies to escape! This is too real.” Bradley Cooper’s demeanor and his overall look (he’s only a few years older than our son) took our collective breath away. His haggard face, and oh, my God, that stare! That was our son, during the depths of his pain and paranoia. Cooper just nailed it. Astonishing!
As noted above, David O. Russell, the film’s director and screenplay adapter, has a troubled young son himself, a fact that undoubtedly informed his interest in, his approach to the story, and his direction of Bradley Cooper. But, Cooper’s work here is an acting tour de force wherever it came from, and most deserving of its recognition by pretty nearly everyone. And I’m here to say, you have absolutely no idea how close to the bone he struck.
See these films!
Rarely in my experience have any movies been so entirely compelling. To have had this experience three times in a two month span is as remarkable as it was refreshing to the spirit. They are each very different, covering cataclysmic events 150 years ago, the harrowing 10 years following 9/11, and what might have been just the other day in Philadelphia, but each did so with a depth of detail, naked emotional honesty and an utter mastery of storytelling. After all, the combined weight of all three propelled me into writing this essay about movies, a subject I’ve never tackled before.
If you haven’t yet done so, make it a point to see Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty. See them in a darkened theatre, advice I don’t often give, much less take, any more. They will more than reward your investment in tickets, parking, refreshments, time and attention.