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Cinema

Of hope and (past) glory

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OF SINS AND REDEMPTION: Contrasting history flicks 'Django Unchained' (above) and 'Lincoln' (right) and will battle for Oscar glory

This year's Oscar nominations spotlight both America's zeitgeist and Hollywood's love of self congratulation

For observers of America, Hollywood's most famous gong show, the Oscars, has often offered a better window to the state of the union than any speech the US President usually makes. The films in contention for 2013's Best Picture Oscar are a good case in point, in channeling zeitgeist.

Four films especially - Lincoln, Argo, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty -stand out here as hugely revealing takes on American history that purport to speak of those times just as much as they speak to these ones. And it isn't just an interesting coincidence that all the nominees - which also include the exquisitely wrought Life of Pi, Amour, Les Misêrables, Silver Linings Playbook and Beasts of the Southern Wild - are also stories of hope pushing against the odds, of ultimate triumph rendered sweeter by the dogged determination that came before. Maybe that's why the grim but magnificent The Master is not on this list. But then again, what's compelling cinema in most cases when there are no big odds for protagonists to battle? History conveniently supplies us with lots of both.

And so Steven Spielberg brings us his version of America's saintliest leader, the closest they get to our relationship with Mahatma Gandhi perhaps. But Lincoln is not a dewy-eyed historical, nor is it entirely the passion of St Abe. A densely wrought 'procedural' focused on the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, the film is clearly a paean to a modern nation still convinced of its unique destiny as a lodestar for democracy and national virtue. Consider how it ends. Yes, there's Lincoln walking away to be tragically assassinated, and a stately tableau of his death;but the film chooses instead to end with his second most famous speech, his 'second inaugural' of 1865, a speech that moved Frederick Douglass, the social reformer, to famously dub it 'a sacred effort'.

Which is why Spielberg dutifully lingers on its legendary phrases: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right...to bind up the nation's wounds... and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations". Clearly a clarion call to America in the age of Obama, and released a week after the US elections, the film consciously eschews anything that might be dubbed mawkish in favour of much that would be instantly regarded as weighty. And, of course, contemporary.
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's latest tilt at the cock-a-hoop delights of the counterfactual historical, (after Inglourious Basterds) couldn't be more different. Less a pat on America's back than a kick up its backside on the subject of slavery, some have argued that it is much more significant than Lincoln. And after furiously circling the Spaghetti Western in every film that he's made so far Tarantino finally gets in on the genre in grand style. In characteristic fashion, he's mashed it with another (' blaxploitation' ), thrown in a metaphor from Teutonic myth and concocted an uproariously funny, self-indulgent confection that should make many gag. Its overuse of the 'N-word' may have led to much browbeating, but that doesn't detract from Tarantino's genius for glorious cinematic reinvention.

Browbeating is something Kathryn Bigelow should now know all about. Her Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was first targeted by right-wingers afraid it might give Obama a boost in an election year and then slammed by liberals for depicting America's use of torture. Offering not so much catharsis as much as apt celluloid closure for America's most traumatic memory, the film is a masterful fusion of the immediacy of journalistic reality with the conventions of what cinema pundits call 'docudrama'. Its understated style, right up to and even after the climax we're all waiting for, helps it skip past the obvious chestthumping, while its expert foregrounding of a stubborn female CIA analyst's efforts to find a ghost helps us identify with the quest without really buying into the politics of it. This is no mean accomplishment.

But it's been sufficiently tarred, if not quite feathered, which leaves the field open to Argo, the slickest, lightest and slightest take on American history in the Best Pic sweepstakes. Significantly, Ben Affleck's engaging recreation of a real CIA plan - one that actually worked as intended in the Middle East three decades ago - also places Hollywood front-and-centre in this narrative, as the cavalry riding in to rescue helpless real world spooks. Besides clever pacing and film editing, this might be one key reason why the film, has hoovered up ever major best picture award on its way to the Oscars and appears set, according to every trade pundit, to best its weightier competitors come Sunday night.

With such careful nods to America's past it's safe to assume that Hollywood's once again telling us that it's got its troubled nation's back. Yet for this singular American dream factory, when it comes to handing out its prized gongs, Hollywood, as it did with The Artist last year, clearly loves few things better than patting its own back.

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