LINCOLN (12A) **** It never fails to grip for a moment, and remains rousing throughout
WITH 12 nominations, Steven Spielberg's handsome, intelligent and stately historical drama leads the pack at this year's Oscars, and with a good tailwind there's every chance it could walk away with a high percentage of those awards.
Though in subject matter a clear companion piece to last week's Django Unchained, their respective approaches taken to slavery really couldn't be more different.
Where Tarantino rewrote American history into a revenge fantasy, Spielberg and screen-writer Tony Kushner have fashioned a portrait of the great men who brought about the end of slavery through word and deed, and the speechifying they made and the politicking they had to do in order to see it through.
The opening scene, depicting a grim and muddy battlefield writhing with savage hand-to-hand combatants seems set to show us that Spielberg is about to redefine 19th-Century warfare like he did for the Second World War with Saving Private Ryan.
But this is only the briefest moment of action in an otherwise extremely talky film.
Unlike many accounts of great figures, this is very wisely not a biopic, but a very specific window into probably the most turbulent time in the USA's history.
It's 1865, and the Civil War is in its final stages. President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been trying for years to pass an amendment to abolish slavery.
But in order for his emancipation bill to make it through Congress, many in his own Republican party have to be persuaded to vote in its favour.
He's also trying to simultaneously end the war, but the belief is widely held that there can't be both peace and abolition.
The road to freedom is paved with a lot of talk, but these are glorious words, delivered by first rate actors in dusky rooms and in debating chambers.
Yet some of its most captivating moments come when Lincoln addresses just a handful of people, breaking out the metaphorical anecdotes and weaving stories and holding everyone in the palm of his hand.
It helps considerably that we're being guided by an actor of the stature of Daniel Day-Lewis. Heading for an unprecedented third best actor Oscar, Day-Lewis is monumental, offering a portrayal of a kindly patrician, a steely politician and a loving husband that's steeped in warmth, intelligence and grace.
In profile and in posture he radiates an aura, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest that this is one of cinema's finest ever performances.
Tommy Lee Jones as gnarled congressman Thaddeus Stevens provides witty support, and is given many of the best lines, but hardly a scene goes by without a famous face turning up. John Hawkes and James Spader work to buy votes, providing both a few good chuckles and evidence that these people aren't saints, but political schemers ready to do anything necessary for the greater good.
There's deeper family drama too, with Sally Field as Lincoln's wife, Mary, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as their eldest son Robert, who longs to enlist, against the will of his parents.
Lincoln presents seismic drama on both national and domestic scale, and though we know how it's going to end, it never fails to grip for a moment, and remains rousing throughout.
And if doesn't quite hit the crescendo of emotion towards which it seems to build, that's because Spielberg is reining himself in for once, resisting his impulse to grandstand.
The climactic vote is remarkably restrained and yet, perversely, the theatrical bombast can be missed, particularly when dealing with such tumultuous subject matter. But that's a tiny niggle, because in craft, in performance and in thematic resonance, the brilliance of Lincoln is self-evident.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 150 mins
ZERO DARK THIRTY (16) ***
Tension is generated, but it never exerts a proper stranglehold
KATHRYN BIGELOW'S follow-up to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker is another hard-hitting account of the war on terror, that begins in 2003 as the CIA try to get information in the search for Osama bin Laden.
Told from the point of view of analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain), stationed in Pakistan, much of the first half consists of shaking down suspects on the food chain for all the intel they can get their hands on, through waterboarding and other forms of torture.
It's a gruelling, uncomfortable process, the ethical implications of which are neither glorified nor condemned, but simply presented as how it happened.
Mind you, that hasn't stopped Zero Dark Thirty attracting a level of controversy that seems to have scuppered any Oscar hopes the film may have had.
Years pass in a flash with little progress made, and through a largely fruitless decade and billions of dollars, it becomes as much about Maya's tenaciousness as it is about the search. Yet Maya never really convinces as a character, and Chastain often fails to command the screen with a strangely subdued performance.
Through lots of meetings and the occasional striking burst of action, some tension is generated yet it never exerts a proper stranglehold.
The final push is the raid on bin Laden's compound and this is skilfully executed, with Bigelow certainly aware of how to put this together for maximum impact, even when the result isn't in doubt.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Running time: 157 mins
THE LAST STAND (15) ***
Arnold still looks the part, even if he is coasting on his legacy
IT'S been 10 years since Arnold Schwarzenegger last appeared in a starring role, and if the dismal performance of The Last Stand at the US box office is anything to go by, he hasn't been missed.
Which is a shame, because this is a perfectly serviceable action thriller that delivers on what it sets out to do, which is to make sure an awful lot of bullets are fired in as entertaining a way as possible.
It's the old Rio Bravo set-up of the small band of good guys up against hardened baddies, with the former governor of California starring as the sheriff of a sleepy Arizona town.
Meanwhile, a maximum security prisoner being transferred from Vegas has been busted out by his gang, with Arnie's town the only thing standing in the way of the criminals and the freedom of Mexico.
It's not the sharpest story in the world, and there are no surprises, but this is stylishly realised, with some snazzy camera moves and shoot-outs which are choreographed with a sound eye for the geography of the situation, not something a lot of action films can claim.
At 65, Schwarzenegger isn't required to do anything too physical, but he still looks the part, even if it has to be said he is coasting on his legacy to a large extent. If a new actor came along with this standard of line delivery, he'd be laughed out of town of coures, but there's enough good will that his return to the fold is welcome, at least for now.
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Running time: 107 mins