November 26, 2012
This film is uncanny. It’s uncanny seeing a Lincoln who might have stepped out of a Brady photograph. It’s uncanny because I couldn’t help thinking about the Disneyland animatronic Lincoln, which is terribly unfair to the movie and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, but there you go. Every third or fourth scene was an oratorical set piece where all the other characters seemed to step back and a little light seemed to shine on Lincoln while he held forth with some story or piece of wisdom. It made me think of a play, of seeing this all on stage rather than at the movies.
It’s uncanny because this film is very much a product of its time, the early twenty-first century. All historical films are a product of their time, more representative of when they’re made than the historical period they represent. (This is why The Tudors couldn’t bear to show Henry VIII as anything other than a Gen Y hottie, even in his later years.) I kept wanting to open a trapdoor over the anti-abolitionist Democrats on the House floor and drop President Obama into the middle of the debate. “You want to talk equal rights? Here, have a black president. It took us almost another 150 years, but we did it. Boom.” So yes, a movie about Lincoln, specifically about the wrangling to pass the 13th Amendment, that utilizes some of the same language that was featured in the last year of political debate about how freedom cannot include the freedom to oppress others, could really only happen right now, with our first African American President in office. The film becomes a mirror to show both how far we’ve come, and in some ways how far we haven’t.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Lewis will get the best actor Oscar for this. I’m willing to bet Sally Field has a good chance at best actress for playing Mary Todd Lincoln. But I really, really hope Tommy Lee Jones gets a best supporting actor nomination for his performance. He was phenomenal.