NYFF: Our First Thoughts on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln

On Monday, October 8, the Film Society of Lincoln Center set up a last-minute work-in-progress secret screening for the 50th New York Film Festival, but by the time tickets went on sale, the secret was already out that they scored a very early screening of a nearly-complete cut of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

ComingSoon.net attended the screening at the Alice Tully Hall, our excitement suddenly stifled by the ridiculously long queues in the lobby forcing everyone, patron and press alike, to drop off our electronics. It was probably one of the shoddiest security and crowd controls I’ve ever seen either before or after a screening. Once we got in, nearly twenty minutes after the scheduled start time, we found our seat–which we paid for with our own money, for the record–and were disappointed to discover that being all the way at the end of the row in the orchestra, we were below the balcony which obstructed the upper right corner of the screen.

I’m sure Spielberg and DreamWorks would want their movie to first be seen by critics in the most optimum setting possible, and this was most definitely not it.

But let’s move on to the movie, because that’s why you’re reading this, not to hear all our griping.

By now, you probably already know the particulars or can guess that this is a movie about the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis, but this isn’t the standard and expected biopic where we’re told the entire history of how Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House. Instead, it starts with him already as President, a few years into the Civil War, and it’s all about his struggle to end the bloody war and add the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery, something he’s driven to get passed even though it’s put him at odds with everyone around him.

Up until that point, Lincoln has enjoyed some of the highest popularity of any previous president, loved at least by the people in the Union, partially due to his knack and love for telling a great story, something we see quite a bit in the first hour of what ends up being a heavily dialogue-driven film with another spectacular script by Tony Kushner, adapted in part from a book about Lincoln’s political genius. Honestly, this is probably one of the best screenplays of the year and not just because it has more words than most movies we’ll see, but by how Kushner uses those words with fantastic flourishes and humor, while keeping it true to the times.

More than anything else, this is about Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln, really burying himself into the role. It’s a far more subdued performance than some we’ve seen from him where he takes on a Southern lilt and make-up and beard that makes you quickly forget you’re watching this veteran actor. In that sense, we think he’s guaranteed another Oscar nomination and frankly, we can’t imagine anyone beating him out of winning his third Oscar, not even Joaquin Phoenix, who was so great in The Master.

Day-Lewis is also surrounded by an absolutely immense supporting cast between his family and various players from his cabinet. It’s hard to single out all of them, but the strongest supporting performance of note comes from Sally Field as his beleaguered wife, trying to keep their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from enlisting. After that, Tommy Lee Jones give the most memorable performance as the Radical Republican leader of the House from Pennsylvania, Thaddeus Stevens, who is Lincoln’s biggest supporter but gets put into a number of situations where he has to compromise some of his ideals to get the House to vote his way. We think Fields and Jones will be the standouts among awards voters.

Other actors of note include David Strathairn as Lincoln’s Secretary of State and Hal Holbrook as Francis Blair, a powerful politician in Washington who seems to have some control over the House, although we didn’t quite understand his relationship to the Lincolns.

Although much of the movie involves the stress that Lincoln deals with in trying to get enough votes to pass the amendment, which is tough considering how many racist politicians there are in the House, it quickly breaks away from being a dry political drama with way too much talking, since there’s enough comic moments within the politics of trying to get that Amendment passed, including lots of rowdy debates in the House of Representatives that has politicians taking jabs and calling each other names. If only C-SPAN was around in those days. After Jones, some of the standouts in these scenes include Michael Stuhlbarg, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Bruce McGill, Walton Goggins and many more. Personally, some of my favorite parts involved James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as the comic Greek Chorus of Lincoln lobbyists trying to campaign to get him the votes in the all-important House vote.

The movie’s biggest problem is that when it’s not directly dealing with the campaigning, it’s a very slow movie that takes quite a bit of time to deliver any sort of payoff, and at times, it feels long. There are some great scenes between Day-Lewis and Fields that deliver some real dramatic fireworks. The stuff with Lincoln’s younger son Tad, played by Gulliver McGrath, tends to be aggravating, as necessary as it may be, and the subplot with his older son Robert never really goes anywhere. But all these things add to what makes Lincoln who he was, which is why the movie works so well.

Otherwise, it’s an extremely well written and crafted film that requires quite a bit of patience in order to have any sort of emotional impact, but offers fantastic performances, impressive production design and cinematography (from what we could see from our obstructed view). Composer John Williams goes for a far more subdued score this time around–after the bombastic score for War Horse, how could he not?–allowing the words and delivery to come through. This works better for the film, but doesn’t quite give it the emotional pay-off as something like Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which blew us away a couple of weeks ago.

We’re certainly excited to see it again and to hear more people chime in, since this is definitely a movie to talk about, but either way, it’s a bonafide contender during awards season, guaranteed to receive at least 12 Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Director, one for Daniel Day-Lewis–which he should win with ease–supporting nods for Fields and Jones, screenplay (another frontrunner), make-up, costumes, production design, cinematography, editing and original score for sure. We also think it’s going to be a frontrunner for the SAG Ensemble award with only a couple upcoming movies giving it much competition.

Lincoln opens in limited release on Friday, November 9, and then expands nationwide on November 16.

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