Awards Watch: “Lincoln”

In this series, I look at some of the major players in the 2012 awards race and analyze their changes at taking home some shiny trophies.

“Lincoln” is deserving of top prizes, but I hope it doesn’t monopolize the awards conversation.

“Lincoln” has become this year’s awards darling, and for very good reason. It is nominated for 12 Academy Awards and deserves every nomination. That is a very rare thing indeed. The Academy tends to gravitate towards bloated, long-in-the-tooth melodramatic epics that span decades in both the movie’s timeline and, seemingly, the audience’s time as well.

Spielberg’s biopic, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Team of Rivals,” manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of modern biopics. Past historically based winners like “Gandhi” and “The Last Emperor” have felt the need to cover entire histories of great leaders. This often results in bloated four hour-plus running times that test the audience’s patience before the film is even half over.

Now, I’m not criticizing long movies as boring. Some of my favorite films of all time (“Amadeus” or “The Deer Hunter,” for example), have lengthy running times. But, I’ve always been a fan of economy, and Tony Kushner’s script for “Lincoln” is anything but bloated. The film, running only a few minutes longer than the summer tent pole “The Avengers,” wisely sticks to the last four months of the president’s life, as he fights to ratify the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. It’s a rare biopic indeed that doesn’t include a single wasted moment, a single superfluous detail about its subject’s life. Kushner’s original screenplay, which ran over 500 pages, must have been a bloated monstrosity better suited for a TV miniseries. But, whatever happened during the drafting process, it worked. Spielberg’s film is lean by many standards, but features some incredible moments that really sell the audience onLincoln’s humanity, flaws and all.

I keep coming back to the scene where Abe discovers his son lying asleep on the floor. Rather than telling the boy to get up and go to bed, he stoops down to his son’s level and picks him up. It’s easy to forget that our nation’s leaders can lead downright normal home lives, with all of the family dynamics typical of an American family. In his arguments with his wife, Mary Todd, we see his short and frazzled temper. In his conversations with his cabinet, we see his penchant for storytelling and even dirty jokes (by 19th century standards). A good part of this humanity comes through in Daniel Day-Lewis’ indelible performance, which is destined for Oscar glory. He’s not just acting Lincoln: he is Lincoln, in every way he can be. Day-Lewis proves yet again why he is the greatest method actor of his generation.

“Lincoln” has a good chance at taking home the big prize come Oscar night, primarily because it is a handsome and impeccably polished biopic. I also think it’s one of the best movies Spielberg has ever done, so the accolades are indeed justified. It has some stiff competition (especially from “Zero Dark Thirty” and the marvelous “Life of Pi”), but I’d say its chances are still pretty good.

Can Spielberg take home his third statue for directing? I think so. It’s been fifteen years since he was awarded for “Saving Private Ryan,” and I think the Academy may feel fit to award him for the phenomenal work he’s done since. Still, he’s competing against some fine, less recognized directors, which may work against him. Still, the Academy seems to really love him.

While Day-Lewis is the most buzzed-about, one would be remiss to forget the tremendous acting that populates the rest of the film. Sally Field is marvelous as Mary Todd, and I don’t think Tommy Lee Jones can be praised enough for his role as Thaddeus Stevens. Still, both actors face some incredibly stiff and deserving competition (including a best supporting actor race featuring nothing but repeat winners).

“Lincoln” will certainly pick up a few more awards along the way. But, the one I’m really pulling for is Best Score. I’m of the opinion that John Williams can never have too many awards. Although he’s won five Oscars, he hasn’t won in 20 years. I think it’s time to recognize the greatest film composer of his generation once again.

“Lincoln” is most likely an instant classic, which makes it prime Oscar bait. Still, I hope some of the other excellent nominees are recognized in their deserved categories. After all, the Oscars are always more fun when one film doesn’t walk away with everything (with the notable exception of “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which was the greatest, geekiest Oscar telecast ever).

See the full list of nominees here.