Yes, Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ has a big date with Oscar

While Guy is shrewdly noting the potential for British voting contingents to rally behind this or that (particularly “Les Misérables”) in this year’s Oscar race, I’ve just emerged from what is undeniably one of the most quintessentially American efforts of the year: Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Though the irony of the fact that the titular Commander-in-Chief and the leader of the Union army are portrayed by Brits in the film is not lost on me, I assure you.

Nevertheless, the film — which has seen a staggered press screening roll-out since its “surprise” New York Film Festival bow last week — pumps with the blood of a nation and one of its darkest chapters. It’s Spielberg’s most performance-heavy work to date, and indeed, features a cross-section of character actors and star-caliber players all spouting off dialogue thick with the drama of the moment. Every inch of the frame feels heavy with Importance (with a capital “I”), and for good reason. It’s a crucial moment and the need to emboss that fact is never lost on Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner.

Speaking of Kushner, there is a nimbleness to the proceedings and it’s every bit owed to his stage background. Much of “Lincoln” feels like a play, dramatic exchanges immaculately staged, blocking the actors as crucial to the drama as what they’re saying. But his words, and the characters he’s molded from history and the work of Doris Kearns Goodwin, also gives the ensemble plenty to play with throughout. Which brings me right back to the cast.

You name it: Walton Goggins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, David Strathairn, Adam Driver, Bruce McGill, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, S. Epatha Merkerson, John Hawkes, Julie White, David Costabile — character actors who have lit up TV and cinema for years just smother this thing. All of them get their moment and together make for a massive, organic ensemble. Some star wattage in Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Lincoln’s oldest son Robert) is a nice accent, but everything yields to the tide. Having said that, outside of Day-Lewis, who I’ll get to in a moment, I think there are three performances worth spotlighting.

First, Sally Field. In the role of Mary Todd, Field has a lot to chew on, scared for the safety of a son eager to prove himself in war, weary for a husband haunted by his duty, proud for the noble administration he represents and a sufferer of no fools who’d see otherwise. She delivers and never flies off the hinges when her character’s hysterics in some instances could have allowed for it.

Second, James Spader. It’s a shame he isn’t in the film enough to get some serious awards traction, because his charismatic WN Bilbo — who helped Lincoln procure the extraneous Democratic votes he needed to pass the 13th Amendment — was a big highlight for me.

Finally, Tommy Lee Jones. His passionate Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens is a reminder of how far a political party has fallen from days of just and noble concerns, but that notion aside, his performance is one of his best in years. And his big moment is fascinating for being one of compromise rather than heel-dug idealism, but it’s equally moving.

In many ways, that’s the theme of the film. It’s a story about manipulation for the good of man and magnanimous politicking. It reveals Lincoln the artist, the politician, and all through a prism of love and consideration for the law. In other words, this isn’t a man looking to exact his will but to bear it out carefully and with great respect for the integrity of the thing. As Stevens says in the third act, “The greatest measure of the 19th century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” That’s the movie in one line, in my opinion, and, indeed, the country.

So, let’s get to Day-Lewis. He’s a fine Lincoln, every bit as committed to the embodiment of this warm and forthright leader as he was Daniel Plainview and Bill Cutter, the ruthlessly ambitious figures at the center of “There Will Be Blood” and “Gangs of New York” respectively. It’s a consistent soothing presence, and when, inevitably, that presence is gone, the hole left seems impossible to fill. (Though the choice to deal with that mostly off-screen, as well as the litany of endings the film presents, was a bit unfortunate.)

Is he a sure-fire Oscar nominee? You bet he is. Will he be a three-time Oscar winner? We’ll have to wait and see on that. Don’t let anyone tell you this race is over, because while Day-Lewis is aiming for his third trophy, so is Denzel Washington. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Hawkes and Joaquin Phoenix — respected for years — are looking for their first, as is Hugh Jackman. And who knows how happy the Academy will be to see Anthony Hopkins back in the hunt — perhaps so happy they give him a second, for taking on one of the cinema’s most cherished figures? There’s still some road left, that’s all I’m saying.

The crafts on display are refined as ever, and particularly I was struck by how judiciously John Williams’s original score is implemented throughout. Moments I’d often expect to be slathered with his emotional cues are surprisingly silent, allowing performance and voice, whether lofty rhetoric or idle (but meaningful) discourse, to stand out.

Janusz Kaminski’s photography is also intriguingly reserved. It’s still beautiful, mind, and produces countless striking images that are immaculately lit. But the overall look of the film feels less mannered than some of his other collaborations with Spielberg.

And the design, from Rick Carter’s sets to Joanna Johnston’s costumes, is detailed and gorgeous, while Michael Kahn’s film editing is non-intrusive, making for decent pacing throughout, and the makeup effects used to achieve realistic depictions is exemplary.

So if you’re keeping score, nominations for Picture, Director, Actor (Day-Lewis), Supporting Actor (Jones), Supporting Actress (Field), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup/Hairstyling, Original Score and Production Design all seem likely. It’s possible the sound branch responds to the handling of aural elements but I think those 12 are the best bets. And who’s going to sneeze at 12 Oscar nominations?

We’ll see if the film gets them all.

“Lincoln” opens in limited release on November 9.