Lincoln Sneak Offers 19th Century Intrigue And 21st Century Oscar Contender
"This has been a journey for me that's unlike nothing I've done before. It's been a real ride and it's still unfinished." So said Steven Spielberg Monday night as he introduced the New York Film Festival's "Surprise Screening," Lincoln, though most everyone in the jammed unruly line(s) getting into the Alice Tully Hall all but knew the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, would be the 'surprise.'
The general consensus about the film is that it is a serious contender for Oscar glory, though with the likes of Day-Lewis and a stunning performance by Tommy Lee Jones as radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, as well as a script by Tony Kushner and director Spielberg, how could it not be?
The powers that be at DreamWorks and Touchstone were careful that no footage or anything of a digital nature would escape the 1000-plus seat theater. Everyone had to check anything that so much had an on/off button (through a quick scan through the crowd, one could see a few cameras/iPhones at the end of the screening). The film's official world premiere will take place as the closing night gala of the upcoming AFI Fest in Los Angeles.
The movie opens with a rain-soaked hand-to-hand battle between north and south. The gruesome scene is reminiscent of Spielberg's past war battles in all its tragic detail. But that is the only war scene in the two-hour-plus pic (there was confusion at the screening exactly how long it was in its current state).
"I already did Saving Private Ryan," joked Spielberg following the screening.
The bulk of the film centers on the period after Lincoln's re-election in 1864 in the months leading up to his death in April of the following year, when he struggled to get the 13th Amendment passed by the House of Representatives. The Amendment abolished slavery once and for all in the United States. Though he had ordered the Emancipation Proclamation earlier, Lincoln feared the provision would only be held up as a "war power" and would become redundant after the war's end — meaning, those legally freed would be immediately sent back into servitude.
"When Steven [Spielberg] and I started talking about doing this, we knew we'd only do part of [Lincoln's] administration — not all of it," said Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony Kushner. "The whole thing got delayed during the writers' strike, so I didn't do anything with it — but I did think about it." Kushner initially wrote a 500-page screenplay but then whittled it down to 100 pages after suggesting that Spielberg particularly look at the political drama that lead up to the passage of the 13th Amendment, which plays out like a 19th century political drama.
Day-Lewis channels the steely determined sage of a still young country on the brink of disintegrating. Spielberg and Day-Lewis relied on historical documents to pattern the 16th President's voice which goes against stereotype for a national patriarch who is known to have been a great orator.
"Research talks about his high shrill voice," said Spielberg. "I think we'd be criticized if we did it the way he's heard by Disney's Epcot Center with a low-tenored voice."
Tommy Lee Jones will undoubtedly get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for portraying the sharp-tongued Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who spearheaded equal rights against a venomous opposition in the House. He argues spectacularly against a pack of Democrats who vehemently oppose the 13th Amendment, fearing its passage would portend future implications — namely the vote and equal rights. Spielberg pointed out the historical fact that the Republicans were considered the "progressive" party of the day while the Democrats were generally in favor of the status quo, though some did cross party lines in a case of political brinksmanship — which is at the center of this film argues to pass the 13th.
Authenticity played a central role in crafting Lincoln, and the looks of the day as portrayed in the film sometimes came off as comical. The costumes are something phenomenal, especially those worn by David Strathairn, who plays Secretary of State William Seward, and Sally Fields as Mrs. Lincoln, who argues at moments to chuckles from the audience (but yes, Mrs. Lincoln did wear those massive poofy dresses).
"We used Lincoln's own watch in the movie," said Spielberg. "The watch ticking in the movie is Lincoln's own watch. It was wound for the first time in 50 years. There was a high bar to reach and we brought that to Richmond where we shot the movie."
"This was one of the most pleasant experiences [filming] I've ever had," he added. "Daniel Day-Lewis is a consummate artist and that marriage with Tony [Kushner's] words was momentous."
[Photo by Godlis/Film Society of Lincoln Center]