Awards Profile: Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Release: December (TBA) 2012

Does it not seem inconceivable that there are so few films exploring any part of the extraordinary life of Abraham Lincoln, the much loved sixteenth President of the United States? Many historians believe Lincoln might have been the greatest President in the history of the office until he was cut down April 14, 1865 while watching a play with his wife in the Ford Theatre.  Films about Presidents are a rarity to begin with, but one would think Lincoln would be ripe for exploring given his life, the impact he made on the United States during a time the nation was ripped apart, and the manner in which his presence was felt for years after his assassination. We have to go back to D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) to find a biography of any kind on the man, and though critically reviled at the time, it has come to be accepted as “not a bad film”. Character actor Walter Huston does a adequate job as Lincoln, though we never really get to know him, we never leave the thinking we know a little more about the man. I certainly felt that after Oliver Stone’s scathing Nixon (1995) I knew a little more about Richard M. Nixon than I did walking in, and certainly had a degree of sympathy for the man.  Stone had the courage to pull no punches and show Nixon for what he was, a brilliant statesman, but deeply flawed man corrupted by his immense power. There were films made about Lincoln in the silent era, including an appearance in Griffith’s masterwork The Birth of a Nation (1915), but again, no penetrating study of his life. It is my fervent hope that Spielberg will do the man justice in his film, and give audiences of this generation something to remember in his study of Lincoln.

Based on the famous bestseller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, written by Doris Kearn Goodwin, the film will explore the final months of Lincoln’s life, with two time Best Actor Academy winner Daniel Day-Lewis portraying the iconic President, and two time Oscar winning actress Sally Field as his wife, the deeply troubled Mary Todd. It is often forgotten or simply not discussed that Mary Todd was mentally ill, and there are some who believe Lincoln himself suffered bouts of depression, thus was little comfort to his wife. The casting of Daniel Day-Lewis comes after Liam Neeson left the project after being attached to the film for many years. The actor finally came to believe he “too old” for the project and left, allowing Spielberg to cast the man many feel might be the greatest living male actor in movies. There is no doubt Day-Lewis will throw himself into the part and deliver an honest performance that should be a truthful study of who and what Lincoln was. Sally Field has not been terribly active in movies since Forrest Gump (1994), but is a force to reckoned with in the right role.

The rest of the cast provides some excitement as well, with Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and David Strathairn among the gifted actors being guided by Spielberg.

Seriously? This is an important film from a gifted director, filled with a strong cast, and has everything the Academy likes. The danger, of course, in looking at a film like this is,  to declare it already, the winner of the major Academy Awards next year, a deadly mistake that has been committed before on Spielberg films, Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005) and War Horse (2011) among them. By no means has this been done only to films directed by Steven Spielberg, as work from Martin Scorsese, The Aviator (2004),  has also been declared the promised Best Picture winner early, only to fade through award season and lose Oscar night. The hype begins far too soon, that by the time the film opens it had better be nothing less than the greatest film ever made (an unfair expectation) or its Oscar chances are gone. That said, it is nonetheless tough to look at Lincoln and the talents involved and not believe the film could attract the attention of Oscar voters and year end awards. To begin with it is a historical work, which the Academy adores, and is about a a beloved American President, an important period in American history, and is based by an award winning book. Further it is directed by one of the cinema’s greatest filmmakers, will be acted by perhaps the greatest living actor, along with Sally Field (great in her element) and a strong cast of supporting actors and actresses. Let’s be fair, the thing has Oscar written all over it. So many great films, Oscar winning Best Pictures have been based on historical events (or people) thus it becomes clear the Academy has an adoration for that sort of film. Consider The King’s Speech (2010), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Gladiator (2000), Titanic (1997), Schindler’s List (1993), The Last Emperor (1987), Out of Africa (1985), Amadeus (1984), Gandhi (1982), Chariots of Fire (1981), Patton (1970), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Ben Hur (1959) to name a few biographical or historical films which took home the Best Picture prize. Oscar likes these kind of films. How, if Lincoln is as good as I expect it will be, could they not nominate the film or award it Best Picture?? However what would be sad, would be if the film is merely Ok and the Academy falls over themselves tossing Oscars at it, as they did for Gandhi (1982) forgetting they were honoring a film and not the man.

Is there a Spielberg backlash happening in the business? No Best Director nod for War Horse (2011) last year, no Animated Feature nod for The Adventures of Tin Tin (2011)? Hmmm. He made no friends when he angrily stormed away from the 1999 ceremonies after Shakespeare in Love (1998) won the Best Picture Oscar that he felt, rightly so I think, should have gone to Saving Private Ryan (1998). He is too great a filmmaker to behave like a spoiled petulant child. I am not sure they have ever forgiven for that, and they may not. I mean it took many years to see him finally win that first Academy Award, and then to get a second just five years later was a major accomplishment. He should have stayed, he should have behaved better. In my opinion he should have been nominated for both A.I. : Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Minority Report (2002), and was not, and though Munich (2005) was highly touted early on, by the time Oscar season was in full swing, its time had gone. The same sort of thing happened last year with War Horse (2011) a film I think deserved much better treatment from the Academy. With Lincoln, let’s face it, this film is about more than just Spielberg. We are dealing with a movie about a much adored American President in a time when the office of the President has taken something of a beating. It seems to me Lincoln personifies everything a President should be or should want to be, and perhaps we need a reminder of that. Though I cannot see it NOT among the finalists next year, and the frontrunner, crazier things have happened.

Now that said, and I need to state this loudly,  I do not want to go there and want to make that clear. There should be no Oscar talk until the film has been seen, but that wish will not prevent such talk, in fact it has already begun. Early word from the set was that Day-Lewis was doing astounding work, but nobody has seen anything on film just yet, and so much of a film comes in post production. Granted they must get it on film before they can cut it together, and I have every confidence they will, but until Lincoln is seen, though I hope it is among the nominees, and if good enough, the winner, nobody knows anything. If good I expect no less than eleven, possibly twelve nominations and potential third Oscars for Day-Lewis and Spielberg. If Field reaches down and delivers the good as she has in years gone by, she could be holding her third Oscar and declaring that “you still like me, you still really like me”!

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor
Best Actress
Best Supporting Actor
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Musical Score
Best Cinematography
Best Art Direction
Best Costumes
Best Film Editing
Best Sound