'Lincoln' New York Film Fest Screening Turns Oscar Race Upside-Down (Analysis)

Daniel Day Lewis Lincoln Portrait - H 2012

Daniel Day Lewis Lincoln Portrait - H 2012

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which had a high-profile sneak screening Monday evening at the 50th New York Film Festival, was greeted by sustained applause and an immediate burst of enthusiastic tweets. Based on my own evaluation of the film and its prospects, I expect it will be a sure shot for Academy Award nominations for best picture, best director and best actor for two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, playing America’s 16th president during the final months of his presidency as he fights for the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.

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I think it stands a very strong shot for further noms for best supporting actor Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the powerful Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and best supporting actress Sally Field, who appears as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. I also expect Spielberg's incomparable stock company of below-the-line craftsmen -- cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, film editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, et. al. -- to garner their usual noms.

In short, Lincoln appears to be Oscar-bait incarnate. As he did with his most ambitious historical films -- Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) -- Spielberg, who has made a career of blurring the line between art and commerce, has risen to the occasion. Although the film runs two hours, 25 minutes, every scene felt tight and necessary, undoubtedly in large part because Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) penned its script, drawing from a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin's rigorously researched historical study Team of Rivals.

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There’s sure to be much talk about Day-Lewis’ performance. I’d argue that it's every bit as great as Henry Fonda's iconic portrayal in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Jones, who has the most prominent supporting part -- others are played by Oscar nominees Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook and David Strathairn, plus Adam Driver, Walton Goggins, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader and Michael Stuhlbarg -- recently told an interviewer, "This is not a Lincoln that's just stepped off the five-dollar bill or just arisen from the Lincoln Monument. This is not the icon or the hero, and he's not the joke of the old 'Honest Abe' nonsense. This is a real man, and I don't think Lincoln has ever been done as well."

(If Brit Day-Lewis wins his third Oscar for his portrayal of fabled American leader Lincoln, it will be poetic justice for American Meryl Streep winning her third Oscar for her portrayal of fabled British leader Margaret Thatcher earlier this year; I would argue that they are the cinema's greatest living actor and actress, respectively.)

Lincoln's buzz has been all over the map in recent weeks: Its first trailer was widely criticized for being dull, with some harping on the somewhat high-pitched voice with which Day-Lewis chose to play Lincoln (even though the history books support his take), but its second trailer, which aired on TV after the first presidential debate, won over at least as many people as the initial one had disturbed. Many didn't know what to think. Then, late last week, word leaked out that the New York Film Fest's secret screening would be Lincoln, and it quickly became the hottest ticket of the festival.

Attendees had to turn over all of their electronic devices and promise not to review the film -- which led at least one audience member to post an enthusiastic tweet with the hashtag #notareview. Among those in the house on behalf of the film were Spielberg, who received a thunderous standing ovation when he was brought out to introduce the film (he said, "Working on this Lincoln portrait was a singular privilege ... unlike anything I've ever done before"); Kushner and his husband, the noted author and Oscar blogger Mark Harris (on hiatus this year due to his conflict-of-interest); Field, accompanied by her son Sam Greisman (who this week became the subject of a viral video); Strathairn and Merkerson; and Spielberg's longtime producer Kathleen Kennedy. Also present was actress/TV host Whoopi Goldberg, who starred in Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985); former Fox co-chairman and CEO Tom Rothman; and producer Scott Rudin.

As was the case Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which also had a high-profile "work-in-progress" sneak at last year’s New York Film Fest, this should be just the start of a long awards road for Spielberg’s movie. The film will have its official world premiere Nov. 8, the closing night of the AFI Fest, and is set to be released nationally the next day. It had been rumored that DreamWorks was deliberately holding it until after the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election to prevent it from being politicized by either party -- indeed, there are some striking parallels between Lincoln and another tall, lanky and oratorically gifted but aloof lawyer-turned-president from Illinois who spent a lot of post-election political capital pushing through controversial legislation for the other major political party -- but that concern was clearly not great enough to keep the film from being shown in New York.