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For over a week now we've been running daily pieces about why a film does or does not deserve Best Picture. You can catch up with the full series here. Today Katey sticks up for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
For a country founded on religious freedom, it did not take us long to find our national martyred saint. Imitated by children in construction paper top hats and felt beards, revered by the millions of visitors to his temple-like memorial, cited by any President or leader who wants to skim a bit of gravity for their words-- Abraham Lincoln became America's Christ, a man from the past who spoke what he believed in and died for it, who righted the future of a country too young to know its own importance.
Lincoln's face is literally a token in our culture, stamped on the penny and the five-dollar bill. To tell a story about him today requires first actively tearing down the icon, a task about as daunting as dismantling the marble of the Lincoln Memorial. Titling his film Lincoln, and casting probably the world's greatest actor in the title role, Steven Spielberg set himself for folly or at least self-importance. Instead he made a quiet masterpiece.
In Lincoln, which is nominated for Best Picture this Sunday, we first meet the President sitting on a battlefield, and from the very start he is fighting against his own iconography. When a conversation with two black soldiers about his "springy hair for a white man" is interrupted by two young white men who caught the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln allows them to excitedly recite it back to him, and doesn't repeat it himself. The very next shot after the battlefield is a mysterious and haunting one, Lincoln standing on a boat seeming to glide through the stars; it's the kind of image you can imagine in a painting after his assassination, depicting his ascension into heaven. Turns out it's a dream, described to Mary Todd in an intimate scene in which she's sick to death of hearing about his bad dreams. One scene later, he's curling up on the floor with his son who has fallen asleep by the fireplace, carrying the boy back to bed on his creaky, weary back.
Within ten minutes, Spielberg and his genius screenwriter Tony Kushner have handed us Lincoln the man, in deft and brief sketches that provide all the humanity we'll need for the wonky and tangled two hours to come. From the moment David Strathairn appears as Secretary of State William Seward the film sets off at an amazing clip, introducing the audience not only to the twisty process of getting the 13th Amendment passed in the House, but the incredible cast of characters Lincoln must woo to make it happen. In the spirit of its generous and gentle lead character, Lincoln shares its focus with an impressive number of supporting characters, from the unstable and terrified Mary Todd to the wily fixer W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) to the cranky raconteur Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). If it were merely an incisive study of the 16th President Lincoln would be an honorable and interesting movie, but the enormous supporting cast and engaging portrait of this rat's nest Washington world makes it an engaging and great one.
To watch Lincoln again is to find a new favorite scene every single time, to notice a new character actor in a key role or to marvel at another of Janusz Kaminski's exquisite frames, or John Williams' unusually restrained score, or Michael Kahn's precise edits. When I first saw the film at the New York Film Festival I was largely unimpressed, thinking it was too long and slow and that Day-Lewis's performance was too muted to earn much attention. I wrote it off, the way so many in 1860 wrote off Lincoln, the underdog for the Republican nomination for President. But the film grew in stature as the man did, revealing nuances and sharp humor and noble ideas, both enjoying an incredible popularity that seemed so unlikely (Lincoln the man presided over a deeply divided country; Lincoln the film has made $180 million in a box office dominated by franchises aimed at teens). A movie that showed every sign of being grandiose and stuffy became witty and light and touching; a President who seemed etched forever in stone came to vulnerable, shrewd life.
Many of this year's Best Picture nominees are massive accomplishments, from the CGI splendor of Life of Pi to the nail-biting tension of Argo to the handmade beauty of Beasts of the Southern Wild. But Lincoln is the only success to have worked in reverse, starting from a character already more celebrated than virtually anyone else who ever lived, and peeling him back until it found the hunched, questioning human struggling to do the most good. When he wrapped filming on Lincoln Spielberg says he cried, because "I wasn't ready to say goodbye to this warm and generous President who I had gotten to know better than all the history books I've ever read, and all the research I ever did." That same reluctance to let go carries through to his remarkable movie. To give Lincoln Best Picture is not to bring Lincoln back or make our time with him any longer, but to acknowledge the phenomenal resurrection that allowed us to spend time with him at all. Lincoln belongs to the ages. Lincoln does too.
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