After much unnecessary secrecy and out and out sort of lying, Steven Spielberg’s long awaited “Lincoln” screened tonight at the New York Film Festival. It’s an ambitious film that starts slowly but builds furiously to an epic grandeur. Yes of course it’s a definite Best Picture nominee with wonderful, memorable performances and a top notch script that is sometimes too talky but great to listen to.
What’s interesting of course about “Lincoln” and the passing of the 13th amendment to abolish slavery–what this movie is principally about-is –that Republicans were liberals and Democrats were conservatives. Everything as we know it now is backwards and upside down. That’s why Spielberg begged the studios not to release the film until the week after this year’s elections. “I didn’t want it to become a political football,” he told the crowd at Alice Tully Hall following a standing ovation.
But let’s cut to the chase. Daniel Day Lewis looks and acts more like Abraham Lincoln than the real thing. Sally Field is astonishingly wonderful as Mary Todd Lincoln. She owes Tony Kushner–he’s written her a speech that will get her nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Tommy Lee Jones–already great this summer in “Hope Springs”–is off the wall here as Thaddeus Stephens.
And then there is just a murderer’s row of character actors– like 20 of them–filling every other role, all exceptionally good, beautifully cast. Spielberg said he thought of this shoot as “theater.” With Kushner involved, the movie feels like a theater company. David Straithairn headlines that group, with Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, Gloria Reuben, Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes, James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg and so many more filling out this cast.
Spielberg says the film isn’t finished. It clocks in at 2 hours, twenty minutes. Some trimming at the front end could be useful. There was one point when Lincoln was going on and on. But even the script addresses that– Lincoln apparently was known for his long stories and spiels–and his various colleagues comment on it. There’s a lot of humor in this script, by the way. Big laughs from the audience. “Lincoln” is not just serious political science. But it’s fascinating to watch the way politics worked in 1865, and how much better it turned out when bipartisanship was possible.
On a separate note: this secret surprise screening thing as botched by the New York Film Festival. It was a lot of chaos, and caused a lot of bad feelings. More over, the mess that was made was highlighted by the appearance of Whoopi Goldberg, who bought her ticket on the internet, stood on line at the theater, and had to be fished out of the swirling masses by Disney publicists. Whoopi, who never complains, didn’t– she just played it like a regular person. God bless her.
PS If you’re interested, there’s no John Wilkes Booth, no assassination scene, and no big Civil War re-enactment. And yet this is truly an epic, a classic American film, and puts Spielberg squarely back in his place at the upper echelon of filmmaking. (I liked “War Horse,” but that’s another story.) John Williams’ music has never been more restrained or beautiful, and the movie looks great.