Oscar Winners in Review – Lincoln

by TheLitCritGuy

The original title was White Dudes doing stuff...

The original title was White Dudes doing stuff…


Let me begin in what might well be quite an unusual place for a review of an Oscar winning movie. I don’t like Stephen Spielberg very much. Or at all actually. It took me a while to actually work out what my problem with him was.  I always knew he was a competent film-maker and he seemed to be able to marry the tricky partnership of blockbuster and critical success but still I wasn’t quite OK with him. It was watching Schindler’s List that made things click for me. The whole film is filmed in monochrome apart from one scene. In the midst of a ghetto clearance the camera focuses on a little girl in a bright red dress. It’s an emotional manipulative trick that bypasses any sense of intellectual, political outrage you may have felt at watching the actions of the Nazi’s and replaced it with gooey, cloying sentiment. It’s a theme that runs through a lot of his work; from Saving Private Ryan to AI he seemed incapable of dealing with serious topics without that same overly cloying sentiment getting in to ruin things. Essentially I had Spielberg written off as a purveyor of perfectly packaged emotional pornography. He might have been popular but was never going to be someone that I took seriously. (Actually – thinking about I do like the first two Indiana Jones films but seeing as they are heavily based on the adventures flicks of Spielberg’s youth – yes they are both very good films, but hardly original stuff…)

The bow-tie is seriously classy though

The bow-tie is seriously classy though

Then I saw Munich. Far from a perfect film it actually seemed to be an artistic step forward for it’s director as it managed to engage with some seriously weighty issues about geopolitical history without taking the easy way out and getting overly sentimental. In fairness when I checked out the credits I shouldn’t have been surprised as the screenplay was co-written by Tony Kushner. For those of you not familiar, Tony Kushner is probably one of the most important figures in modern American theatre, producing the two part Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America. It, and the rest of Kushner’s work is a combination of the highly dramatic, the beautifully characterised and the wholly dramatic. He manages to combine genuine emotions and big ideas in a way that Spielberg can’t and his work on Munich gave the noted director one of his most interesting films.

This was their follow up collaboration and came into the Academy Awards nominated for pretty much every category going (including the highly prestigious ‘Best Beard’ award) but it only managed to scope one – Best Actor for Daniel Day Lewis.

Let’s be blunt for a second, Daniel Day Lewis is the best actor in the world and has been for a very long time. The film is made by his presence and there is not a single actor alive who could have pulled of a performance of such depth, clarity and nuance. Out of everybody nominated there was not a single person who came close and he thoroughly deserved the award.

So, how is the film?

It’s…good. The film follows the final four months of Lincoln’s life as he tries to get the 13th Amendment passed in the dying days of the civil war. As expected Spielberg handles the action and the period detailing very well. It’s also heartening to see him handle the war and the politics of the story so well, and you get a good sense of Lincoln the great orator and political titian. It’s a film that was crafted to win Oscars and awards and you can see the effort put into every aspect of it’s making. The supporting cast is stuffed to the brim with talented character actors and some serious talent including Tommy Lee jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader and Jackie Earle Haley. At this stage in his career Spielberg didn’t have to scrimp to get this done and if you enjoy historical drama that doesn’t neglect from either part of that combination this really should have been one you’ve seen already.  The only downside is that Daniel Day Lewis is so good that when he isn’t on the screen the film noticeable is not as good. Yeah, seriously.

"Don't take it personally. I'm just better than you two"

“Don’t take it personally. I’m just better than you two”

There have been the usual and expected critiques from the historians who have criticised the story for making things too simplistic, and it might well be true that real events were more complex and intricate than Kushner and Spielberg portray, but they aren’t historians. They’re a writer and a director trying to tell a story with iconic characters. The American mythologizing does grate a little I won’t lie but thanks to the Kushner’s script and a truly incredible performance from Daniel Day Lewis this is easily my least hated Spielberg movie ever.

No wonder it won an Oscar.