The art of conclusion

Joe Kellen


(Spoiler alert: I’m going to ruin the endings of both “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” If you don’t wish to know what they are, close this blog now. You’ve been warned. No angry e-mails, capiche?)

The final image in a film is, arguably, the most defining moment of the piece. If the flick is any good, it can change the entire interpretive value of the time spent watching it—what would “The Usual Suspects” amount to without its ending cut of Kevin Spacey obliterating our brains with a kiss goodbye? A version of “Apocalypse Now” without Kurtz getting the last word? I’ll spare you the endless list of examples. What’s important is that two movies nominated for best picture at the Oscars this year, “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” have specific ending moments that encapsulate each film. One is riveting. The other is schmaltz.

Can you guess which is which?

If you attributed the schmaltz to “Lincoln,” we see eye to eye. Not only does Spielberg’s irritatingly sentimental account of the 16th president’s last four months in office insinuate that the man was some sort of infallible champion of civil rights, but it sets it in sleazy Hollywood stone by giving its audiences a closing image of Daniel Day-Lewis delivering a speech surrounded by a literal flame of a burgeoning nation. The film consistently forgets that Lincoln was more concerned with unification during the Civil War than anything else, and instead prefers to show us listless footage of Day-Lewis telling us stories about the good ol’ days.

Spielberg could learn a thing or two from Kathryn Bigelow (director of “Zero Dark Thirty”) about historical drama, considering her film of the same genre presents a much more nebulous and captivating final scene. While “Zero Dark Thirty” is nowhere near unbiased, it avoids the nationalistic celebration of “Lincoln” by giving us an intimate moment with the main character as she sheds tears of relief at the end of a long journey towards freedom from her pursuit of Osama bin Laden. The thing that makes this conclusive moment brilliant is that it doesn’t force a strict agenda on its viewers and encourages them to contemplate the horror of war and depth of human cruelty.

Ultimately, neither film is perfect nor without agenda, but it’s always important to recognize how filmmakers manipulate their audience through what they choose to show us—and if we know anything for certain, both Bigelow and Spielberg are tugging at your mind with authoritative force seconds before the credits roll.