Lincoln – a tautly directed ‘political thriller’

With just a few hours to go for the 2013 Oscar Awards, it was perfect timing to watch Lincoln earlier this evening. This is Spielberg’s second historical film dealing with slavery in the 19th century, the other being Amistad (1997). While Amistad is considered to be one of Mr. Spielberg’s well-intentioned but flawed efforts, he gets it absolutely spot on with Lincoln, in no small measure due to the amazing screenplay from Tony Kushner. Mr. Kushner is nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and it’s going to be a very close call between Lincoln, Argo, Life or Pi and Silver Linings Playbook – probably the closest and most high profile Oscar battle for adapted screenplay in recent years.

Lincoln plays like a tense police procedural, one could call it a ‘political procedural’, with experts from both parties matching wits against each other, employing the arts and crafts of negotiation, horse-trading and good old-fashioned grandstanding, to secure the passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. Through it all, we see President Lincoln coaxing, cajoling and at times enforcing his will upon his cabinet members and his political rivals to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end slavery once and for all. At the same time, he must pursue efforts to end the 4-year Civil War, although he realizes that if the War ends, then the general public and the politicians will no longer see a pressing need to pass the Amendment.

Of course, much has been written about Daniel Day-Lewis being a shoo-in to win the Oscar for Best Actor. And true enough, he inhabits Abraham Lincoln’s character like he was born to play this role. But equally, Day-Lewis is supported by a remarkable ensemble performance from perhaps the biggest gathering of character actors in any recent American film. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field have been nominated for Oscars in their respective supporting roles. Sally Field is able to hold her own when sharing the screen with Daniel Day-Lewis…the scene where they argue about their son Robert enlisting as a soldier is filled with electric tension, whereas their opening scene together shows a wonderful underplayed tenderness. Tommy Lee Jones, as expected, seems very comfortable playing yet another bluff and unyielding character. It was worth the price of the ticket just to listen to him insulting various people in the film. But ultimately, his character Thaddeus Stevens is as much a hero of this film as President Lincoln is.

Another performance of note is that of a barely recognizable James Spader playing ‘vote fixer’/lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, along with his two cohorts played by John Hawkes and the ever-likable Tim Blake Nelson. The viewer also gets great satisfaction from seeing the two key Democrat opponents to the Amendment – Fernando Wood (played by Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (played by Peter McRobbie) – get their comeuppance during the final vote…the satisfaction emanating from their outstanding performances as the ‘bad guys’.

I haven’t yet watched the other contenders for Best Picture, especially Argo which seems to be the front-runner. But it’s difficult to imagine any other film topping this in terms of acting performance, dialogue, production values, editing and that all important ‘historical weight’. Spielberg’s productions of course operate like clockwork now with an established team of collaborators like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams, editor Michael Kahn and costume designer Joanne Johnston, all of whom have been nominated for Oscars. But even if George Clooney walks away with the Oscar for Best Picture (as one of the producers of Argo), I certainly hope that Steven Spielberg will win for Best Director.

One final thought – given the behaviour of Democrats and Republicans today, isn’t it amazing that 150 years ago, it was the Republicans who voted to end slavery and the Democrats who opposed it?

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