I decided to one-up the 2012 version of myself by actually trying to watch some of the Oscar nominees. Whilst I hate the Oscars, I do think to ignore them completely would be foolish. Lincoln leads the pack with a whopping 12 nominations, so it seemed only fitting to put that one near the top of my list.
Firstly, is it just me or does the above poster for Lincoln remind you of the poster for Saw V? Secondly and more importantly, I think “Lincoln” is a misleading title. You may think it’s an historical biopic, charting the life of one of America’s great presidents from humble beginnings in a log cabin to the question of just why the flipping fuck he wore a stovepipe hat. Actually, the film is more about the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the subsequent abolition of slavery. Don’t get me wrong, old Abe features heavily, but it’s not the life story you may have expected.
“I am the president of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You will procure me those votes!”
Lincoln is set in 1865 and follows the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), through his tumultuous final year in office. We see him try to balance his passion for the Thirteenth Amendment’s approval, his role as Commander-in-Chief during the particularly bloody and nasty Civil War and his family life. Having only a passing knowledge of U.S. history, I certainly felt like I was learning a lot about Lincoln and his plight. He seems constantly trapped between a rock and a hard place in everything he does. He’s expertly played by Daniel Day-Lewis who shows why he’s often considered the “greatest actor ever”. Sally Field does a fantastic job as Mary Todd Lincoln, giving us a real emotional core to the film and not overplaying Mary Todd’s apparent bipolarity. Tommy Lee Jones is amazing as radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a real spitfire of a man who destroys people in debates, leaving nothing but a gasping wreck. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also pops up as Lincoln’s eldest because he’s just fucking everywhere at the moment (no bad thing, I think the guy’s brilliant). The film wins big points from me by having Jared Harris turn up as Ulysses S. Grant. Best casting ever. Apart from maybe Lincoln himself.
I really like this portrayal of Lincoln. Rather than fall at his feet and lick his boots, the film is clever enough to occasionally paint him as kind of annoying. He’ll launch into a rambling, seemingly unrelated anecdote at the drop of a hat, even causing one character to get annoyed at hearing yet another Lincoln yarn and storm out. That particular scene is amazing because Lincoln appears out of nowhere, blanket wrapped round his shoulders and just suddenly, with barely any provocation, starts spinning a tale about a painting of George Washington. At times, he seems like a doddering kindly grandfather, doling out wisdom and warmth. I’d like to think that’s how he actually was. The film’s proper finale barely features Lincoln at all, instead giving us a nail-biting final vote on the Amendment. Even though we all know how it turns out, it’s still tense and exciting stuff. Never will another film be able to squeeze so much drama from someone saying yes or no.
No matter how you slice it, Lincoln had “prestige picture” written all over it before the ink had dried on the title. It’s exactly the sort of pandering film the Academy drop trou for. That’s not to say it’s not got any merit, I just feel that this film in particular was giftwrapped and left with a flirty note on the doorstep of Oscar HQ. All of the performances from the lead to people who only say a few lines are faultless. The scope and direction are superb. The cinematography by long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski is authentic and breathtaking. Most of the film’s action is to be found within the speeches, leading to some incredible monologues. Even objectively, this is high calibre, cream-of-the-crop stuff. So why aren’t I more involved? I must admit, at times I felt rather simple as my shallow knowledge of U.S. politics betrayed my understanding of what exactly the crikey shit was happening. I soon caught up, but over its runtime the film lost me several times. Whilst I didn’t mind lagging behind the film in terms of understanding, the thing I did mind was John Williams’ obvious and hand-holding score, which flat-out told me how to react to scenes. It pains me to criticise Johnny W, but his sweeping, sentimental score put me off at times, often undermining the emotion on screen by overegging the pudding. I feel this is more Spielbeard’s fault though.
“No one has ever lived who knows better than you the proper placement of footfalls on treacherous paths.”
I’m struggling to say anything else about Lincoln. It’s an incredibly well made film, for sure. However, I did find my attention waning slightly due to the occasional impenetrable brick wall of laws, bylaws and political rhetoric. It’ll probably win most, if not all of the Oscars it is up for (DD-L for Best Actor fo sho) but there are other Best Picture nominees I’ve been more engrossed by. My guess is that it’ll win a buttload of awards and fade from the public consciousness pretty damn quickly.