To vote competently for the recently held Screen Actors Guild awards, I saw a great many of the movies now up for Oscars. So, of course, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, front runners on most lists that matter before Argo started winning everything in sight, were important to see. In addition to the amazing acting and directing in both (even if ZDT director Kathryn Bigelow was ridiculously passed over for an Oscar nod), there were some more basic similarities between the two that surprised me.
Zero Dark Thirty stars Jessica Chastain as Maya, a CIA operative involved in the finding of Osama Bin Laden and his subsequent death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6.This movie was cast with few well-known actors – even Chastain has never carried a movie herself. I had to look up most of the people on her team as they were the “I know I’ve seen them but I can’t remember where” level of actors you know, working actors who are the foundation of every good movie. People like Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Harold Perrineau. Even Kyle Chandler, who plays Chastain’s character’s boss, is mostly known up till now for television series.
But this casting works to the movie’s benefit, and puts the emphasis on the actions not the actors. Because it is the movie of workaday CIA field agents and what they do, loyal Americans trying to make adifference in the world. They do not torture insurgents, psychologically and physically, because they want to, but because they believe it will help bring an end to terrorists killing innocent people. They are a tight unit, so when one of their own is taken out in a suicide bombing that really didn’t need tohappen, they are all in pain. And since this whole process takes place over 10 years, it is a testament to persistence being omnipotent.
Lincoln is big and sprawling period piece, with beautiful costumes and big names a plenty. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, the chameleon of the acting world, as the President, who through a bit of cunning statesmanship ended slavery and the Civil War, it also had names in most every main role: Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones (someone I never would have expected in a period piece, let alone win awards for it), Hal Holbrook, James Spader, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and one of the few other women, Gloria Rueben.
They are both based on true stories. But more importantly, at their core, they are about the same thing – routing out and ending an evil that is destroying our country. In addition, they are both basically about one person’s tenacity, because while there is a team around Lincoln and Maya that assist them in reaching their goal, it is their particular brand of persistence that brings down the evil. Maya goes so far as to write in big letters on her boss’ glass office wall every day how many days she’s been waiting for the powers that be to let her take the next step she wants to take in locating Bin Laden. She is so positive (and rightly so) that she knows how to work the contacts and known associates to find him. And also, they had to take him down as soon as they found him so that he couldn’t rabbit again.
President Lincoln even goes so far as to trick the representatives from the Southern states so that there is enough time to end the evil of slavery before they offer to negotiate surrender. And while of course in politics there are way too many levels of people to bring into agreement, they were all corralled by the man at the top who believed with every fiber of his being that slavery had to end. Therefore, he had to push in every direction possible so it would become law before the two sides reconciled, when he would again have to deal with the wishes of the Southern states. And he also had the added burden of a wife who, in modern terminology, bugged him to death about eradicating slavery.
Neither movie is for everyone, as there is a great deal of graphically shown torture in he first 20 minutes of ZDT, and you really need to enjoy history to make it through Lincoln. But in both, and especially ZDT, the fact that you know the ending does not lesson the tension when things aren’t going in the right direction, or the sadness when someone who you know is going to die does. They are both brilliant and should be surrounded by Oscars on February 24th.