Steven Spielberg is a giant of Hollywood and seems an ever-present figure on Oscar night, but it may come as a surprise to many that the great filmmaker has only picked up two Best Director Academy Awards, for Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) – the former also winning Best Picture.
However, despite a strong line-up this year, Spielberg has a decent chance of getting his third Best Director gong at the ceremony with his biopic about America’s 16th President, the legendary and trailblazing Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln earned a colossal 12 nominations and has been heavily-tipped to take home a fair amount of gold, due not only to the subject matter of the film, but also the towering performances of the main cast, including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and the two-time Best Actor Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis.
Cynics may say that the reason for the hype surrounding Lincoln is due to its Oscar-friendly nature and the Academy’s penchant for biopics – recently the likes of Ray, The Queen, Milk, The Social Network and The King’s Speech all had successful Oscar nights, the latter taking down the Best Picture crown in 2011.
This would do Spielberg’s latest feature a great disservice though, as although it ticks a lot of boxes for the judges, it is a truly engrossing portrayal of a significant moment in history and the burden carried by the President and his family for his vision to be realised.
The achievement in focus – the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution to officially abolish slavery in America – was no mean feat and was against the odds and against the logic of most congressmen and politicians, who thought that the timing was highly divisive with the Civil War at a pivotal stage.
Many of Lincoln’s fellow Republicans, in particular Secretary of State William H. Seward [David Strathairn], were concerned that the likely defeat in any vote on the proposed amendment would be hugely damaging to his reputation so soon after securing a second term of office. Not only did he have to convince many highly-sceptical members of his party of the need to seize the moment, but he had to turn the heads of a host of Democrats still smarting from recent defeat in the election.
The film depicts this mission, spanning a critical four-month period, to overturn the odds and an estimated initial deficit of 20 votes to get the amendment passed. It displays the belief, will and courage required as weapons powered by inspirational, passionate rhetoric, rather than military force.
Lincoln believed that the amendment would effectively end the war, whilst the majority felt that with the war seemingly coming to a climax, he shouldn’t rock the boat and any emancipation measures could come later down the line when the country was ready for such change.
Despite his popularity with the people, this was still a big risk of his reputation and significantly it wasn’t the masses he had to convert, but the stubborn and powerful elite in the House of Representatives. Seward employs a gang of three lobbyists, on behalf of the President, to sway potential voting with every ounce of their cunning and powers of persuasion, without – at Lincoln’s request – the use of bribes.
Lincoln will not be everyone’s cup of tea and may split audiences with its slow pace and duration. It is surprisingly not the usual schmaltzy epic we have become used to from Spielberg, with none of the customary big battle scenes, accompanied by a searing musical score and regular tearjerker opportunities.
Instead it is stripped back and heavy on rhetoric and theorising – and in my view all the better for it. The drawn-out monologues and political exchanges in parliament and the White House will drag for some viewers over the course of 150 minutes, but if you accept this film as a character study of a philosophising, moralistic figure, you should be rewarded.
Make no mistake though, whether you yearned or yawned, you will be impressed by another method-acting masterclass from Daniel Day-Lewis. The performance is so far removed from his recent Oscar-winning role as the brutal Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, but just as compelling. You can forget you are watching an actor, as he lives and breathes the beliefs of Lincoln, his humility and humanity, and you feel the strain the great man is under, as he creaks and greys before our eyes.
Looking beyond Day-Lewis, the three lobbyists – played with comedic license by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tom Blake Nelson – inject humour into proceedings, while Strathairn as Seward and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant are pitch-perfect. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field are worthy of their Academy nominations – Jones plays sharp-tongued “Radical Republican”, Thaddeus Stevens, with a morose quirkiness that intrigues and amuses in equal measures.
Sally Field – who like Day-Lewis is gunning for a third Oscar win – is fantastic in the role of the The First Lady, Lincoln’s tormented wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Struggling to cope with the death of their son Willie, before the film’s events, the grief-ridden Mary battles chronic migraines, depression and anxiety about her elder son Robbie’s desire to join the war efforts.
She and Abraham have several heated exchanges, most notably one in which she is incensed and dismayed at the way he holds himself together amidst the grief and the stress of their position. He berates her for selfishness in wanting him to deal with it in the same outwardly-emotional way she does. The scene indicates how he fights against a tempest in his mind during this exhausting time and this film is about his strength of character and nobility.
In a film littered with many profound quotes, Mary utters one that resonates and illustrates the kind of respect the President had and the reason why he felt he was right to push for the 13th Amendment. She says, “No one is loved as much as you by the people, don’t waste that power.”
Abraham Lincoln is known for his idioms and this theatrical film has Shakespearean overtones and this is epitomised when he blasts his closest Republicans’ caution stating, “We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now!” These moments are captured beautifully by Spielberg and he and his film Lincoln may well be rewarded for this cinematic accomplishment, despite the stiff competition, at the 85th Academy Awards ceremony.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Jared Harris, John Hawkes, Hal Halbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson.
Running time: 150 minutes
Lincoln is showing at the Hackney Picturehouse until the end of February.