Seymour Movies Thinks This Could Be The Last Time It Goes All Out on Oscar Predictions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve never believed there was a useful distinction to be made between “popcorn movies” and whatever’s meant by “prestige films.” Good movies are good movies and whatever’s left to talk about is marketing, nothing more.

And so, for that matter, is all this year’s pre-Oscar chatter about the decline in TV ratings for the awards ceremonies and the relative apathy among the public for movies considered “Oscar bait.” Do pundits and other assorted “observers” really think nominating Spider-Man: No Way Home for Best Picture is going to revive the Academy Awards’ profile among the masses? I don’t think so – and I happen to believe movies like Spider-Man should be nominated – as long as they’re good; just as I was pulling for Deadpool’s nomination (and for that matter, Leslie Uggams’) a few years back and wouldn’t have at all minded if Black Panther had won Best Picture over Green Book three years ago. It was, after all, the better movie in addition to being the bigger success.

Neither factor has ever really mattered when it comes to the Academy Awards. As I keep putting my blood pressure at risk to tell people who refuse to believe otherwise, the Oscars are trade awards voted and decided upon solely by those who work in the film industry. That means whatever gets nominated and rewarded depends on whatever mood prevails each year among a crowd of Hollywood working stiffs. And these mood swings are somehow immortalized (for at least three months or so) as the Best Movies of their particular year by cable news channels, slick magazines, and whatever’s left of the newspaper industry.

The social and economic upheavals of the last three years, especially the pandemic’s ongoing reverberations, are causing even legacy media institutions to wonder if this venerable charade is, at last, over and out. The celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Godfather’s release is a melancholy reminder of theatrical cinema’s once prominent place in American life and of how the old apparatus of making and hyping movies at all levels of society hasn’t existed since at least the second Clinton administration. Once again, I find myself asking, if we’re no longer sure what a movie is, then what the hell is an Oscar? And more to the point, what’s any of it worth?

I still don’t have an answer and I bet none of you do either. It’s one of those many 21st-century dilemmas for which an answer will surface on its own rather than materialize as a lightbulb over the head of an Instagram follower. For now, The Show in whatever form and however it’s packaged will go on as will the usual griping and grousing from those who don’t care and never have about Academy Awards. I’m no longer sure I care much either. But I’m here. Again. And many of you are or will be. I can hear you growling and snapping.


Once again, projected winners are in bold and, whenever applicable or appropriate, an FWIW (For Whatever It’s Worth) note will be added to each category.


Best Picture

Belfast
CODA
Don’t Look Back
Drive My Car
Dune
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
Nightmare Alley
The Power of the Dog
West Side Story

Even before cowpoke’s cowpoke Sam Elliot blurted his indelicate critique against Power of the Dog (and these days, Oscar Season just isn’t Oscar Season without some occasion for public outrage and virtue-signaling to keep the yahoos distracted), Jane Campion’s western was showing a slight drop from the front-runner status it seemed to nail down upon its premiere last fall. The first wave of acclaim, along with the initial flurry of critics’ awards and field-leading 12 Oscar nominations, was followed by an unusually quick and acerbic blowback. I’d expected Belfast to be the principal beneficiary of this shift in Power/Dog’s fortunes – and it still might be. But lately it’s CODA that’s been gathering a head of steam since it won a best-movie-ensemble award from the Screen Awards Guild (SAG).

Not that SAG’s record as a Best Picture harbinger can be counted on to float without sinking. Less than half of the last 26 winners of that award carried their luck over to Oscar’s big prize. And besides (trying not to spoil things here), CODA’s story of a working-class teenager choosing between fulfilling her destiny as a singer and helping her financially strapped deaf family fits snugly into how SAG’s members see their own careers and aspirations. You wonder if that story arc is likely to patch into other Oscar voting blocs. Heck, yeah, it is, especially if it makes everybody cry as they’re watching. At the time I’m writing this, it’s still Power of the Dog’s race to lose, and as one of my correspondents suggests, Sam Elliot’s “POS” tirade could end up gaining added sympathy for Campion and her movie. But recent history has me regretting every time I’ve underestimated the power of “feel good” movies.


FWIW: Here’s where I usually talk about what I liked best last year, Oscar-nominated or not. Mostly I am, and plan to remain, confounded and aggrieved over Passing, its two stars Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, and its first-time director Rebecca Hall getting skunked out of any nominations whatsoever. In the long run, it may be all for the best; movies that are bold and enigmatic in their own time often find greater acceptance in another time – and I still believe in time.
Speaking of boldness, I keep insisting that Nightmare Alley wasn’t a “remake” of a 1947 noir classic so much as a total reimagining as though 1945’s Detour (a far bleaker and grittier exemplar of “noir” movie than the original Nightmare) had a head-on collision with a Stephen King movie adaptation from the mid-to-late-1980s. It got a few Oscar bids in technical categories, but you’ll never see it win anything on live TV because of how they’re planning to telecast this year’s ceremonies.
The Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner revival of West Side Story deserved much better upon its theatrical release than it got from the public and from industry wise guys too quick or, maybe, too eager to stamp it as a disaster. These days, I’d say, the word “disaster” weighs too much to casually fling at a movie whose biggest mistake was having the bad luck to pile into movie houses during a pandemic. To me, there’s no greater portent for the inevitable fall of the multiplex than the turnaround in overall reaction to West Side Story 2.0 in the weeks since it dove into the streams, as it were.
I also have a qualified recommendation for The French Dispatch that reflects the latent generosity, or greater tolerance from my older, more indulgent self towards Wes Anderson’s intricate jewelry boxes. Or maybe it’s that I’ve lately found his knee-jerk critics more insufferable as time passes for their all-too predictable carping and jeering.


Best Director

Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Even if Power/Dog doesn’t get the Big One, it won’t keep its director from Getting Hers, as it were. It used to be an anomaly for Best Film and Best Director winners to diverge. It’s now happened often enough in recent years to be taken for granted. Campion still has lots of support for this one whatever Sam Elliot says. And, as I said earlier, he may even have unintentionally helped her stay in front of this pack.

FWIW: If I had a vote on this one, Spielberg would get it; if nothing else, just for withstanding all the catcalls he was getting, even as he was still trying to finish it against stiff odds. (e.g., “Why are you bothering? The first one was just fine!” Or: “Why are you bothering? This old warhorse is too creaky, an anachronism, etc.”) Branagh could also pick Campion’s pocket, but only if Belfast wins Best Picture.


Best Actor

 

 

 



Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Andrew Garfield, tick..tick…Boom!
Will Smith, King Richard
Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

As good as I am at intuiting such things, I still can’t tell for sure how much Hollywood still loves Will Smith, despite the hugs, kisses, and backslaps he got for winning the SAG prize a few weeks back for this same role. And yet I can’t imagine anybody else from this list taking the Oscar from him except possibly …Denzel, whom I’m sure Hollywood loves for still being able to open a movie on name recognition alone while always delivering nothing less than an A-level performance. His Macbeth isn’t his very best, but it’s good enough. Smith’s rendering of the Williams sisters’ volatile, complicated daddy, on the other hand, IS his very best. Not a slam dunk, maybe; Cumberbatch also lurks in the weeds. But taking everything into account, it’s close to a no-brainer.

Best Actress

 

 


Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Olivia Coleman, The Lost Daughter
Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Chastain’s SAG award vaulted her to the foreground of a not-terribly-strong-but-highly-competitive field. It’s a big, bravura performance, exactly the type that actors love to reward. And however effective, say, Kidman and Stewart (especially) were at embedding themselves in their real-life personas, it’s now Chastain’s to lose.


Best Supporting Actor

Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Another case where the SAG vote seems to have locked this one up. McPhee had the early lead, but with Plemons’ nomination for the same move came that hoary old saw about “splitting the vote,” which I never thought mattered much and won’t this time either. The veteran Hinds enjoys much affection and esteem among his peers and his turn as the grandfather in Belfast is lovely and touching. But Kotsur’s movie now has greater momentum and his is the far more compelling backstory.

FWIW: There was a moment early on when I thought Simmons had a fair shot of getting his second one of these and it had mostly to do with how even those who disliked Being the Ricardos were always happy to see his William Frawley appear on-screen.


Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ariana DuBose, West Side Story
Judi Dench, Belfast
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

Rita Moreno made me tear up when she soloed on “Somewhere” in West Side Story. I was sure that alone would have made inevitable another nomination, even another win 60 years after she copped this same award for playing Anita. Still, DuBose is getting unadulterated props – and prizes — for her fiery, effervescent, and deeply touching turn in the same role. She should have little-to-no trouble adding another trophy to the pile…

FWIW: …but if it were up to me, I’d ship this puppy posthaste to Aunjanue Ellis for all but stealing her movie out from under the Fresh Prince’s fabled jawline. Her character’s confrontation with a meddling neighbor was an aria of last-nerve enervation with Other People’s Bullshit. Love her, even if hardly any other forecaster seems to notice, or care.


Best Original Screenplay

Belfast
Don’t Look Up
King Richard
Licorice Pizza
The Worst Person in the World


Paul Thomas Anderson may be the most original and audacious living American filmmaker – which won’t necessarily help him win this one. You need to be in the mood for Licorice Pizza’s first-this-happens-then-this-happens-and-then-this-happens storytelling, which would be far more welcome to moviegoers in the 1970s when this story takes place. I was down with it because that decade was my most formative as a cineaste and it is probable there’s a majority of voters in this category who are likewise disposed. But I sense this one’s heading to Northern Ireland.


Best Adapted Screenplay

CODA
Drive My Car
Dune
The Lost Daughter
The Power of the Dog

This one’s wider open than it seems with all except, maybe, Dune carrying strong, if not overpowering cases on their behalf, and none as innovative as Kushner’s delicate, detailed upgrade of West Side Story‘s book, which was totally ignored. Even with CODA‘s late surge to the finish line, I’m thinking Power/Dog may have the edge. But not by a lot. 



Best International Feature

Drive My Car
Flee
The Hand of God
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
The Worst Person in the World

Drive My Car’s triumphant ride through last year’s festival circuit made this elegiac dissection of grief an early favorite in this category. But this is an especially strong field, with both the groundbreaking Flee and Worst Person in the World drawing homestretch buzz. The Ukraine invasion could be a rogue factor favoring Flee if not in this category, then in one of the other two where it’s contending. Even past winner Sorrentino’s Hand of God has a puncher’s chance. Keeping my finger here for now but prepared to move it at any time.


Best Documentary Feature

Ascension
Attica
Flee
Summer of Soul
Writing With Fire

I’ve had dismal luck forecasting this category in recent years and I’m not quite sure about this pick either. As in past years, the outcome of this contest depends on whether Hollywood votes its hopes or its fears. Both impulses are very much in play in the present tenseness. As much as I was transported as everybody else by Summer of Soul’s found objects, I’m going to presume that both innovation and urgency count for a lot with this crowd and believe this is where Flee collects its Oscar.

FWIW: Once again, the grizzled ex-newspaperman in me is rooting for the nominee that shines a light on journalism overcoming formidable odds in foreign lands. Last year it was Romania’s Collective; this year it’s India’s Writing With Fire. Next year, it’ll be some doughty, put-upon independent weekly near the Urals – or, more likely, Central Florida.

Best Animated Feature

 

 

 

 


Encanto
Flee
Luca
The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Raya and the Last Dragon

Sony Animation’s rowdy, whip-smart sugar rush of a techno-satire is, in every sense, the wild card of this bunch. That it’s already won 25 awards from critics’ associations and other groups may come as a surprise to those who’ve watched only its first ten minutes or so on Netflix (where, BTW, you can still find it, even if it’s not always highlighted on the home page). It seems at the outset like such a typical example of formulaic dysfunctional-family slapstick that you’re almost shocked by how meta it gets without losing its edge, its warmth, or its run-amuck tempo. It’s by no means a sure thing, especially with not one, but two Disney entries and the aforementioned Flee as competition. But brains-and-heart, along with the much-beloved Olivia Coleman providing the voice of a megalomaniacal smart phone, seem to me a formidable combination of factors for victory.

FWIW: Unless I’m wrong and either Encanto or Luca end up in the winner’s circle after all.


Best Cinematography

Dune (Grieg Fraser)
Nightmare Alley (Dan Lautsen)
The Power of the Dog (Ari Wegner)
The Tragedy of Macbeth (Bruno Delbonnel)
West Side Story (Janusz Kaminski)

Once again, a good, strong field, all of them deserving. Because of that, I choose to go with my personal preference. Fraser may win it anyway. But this movie’s images keep crawling back into my head the way Dune’s do not.


Best Original Score

Don’t Look Up (Nicholas Ball)
Dune (Hans Zimmer)
Encanto (Germaine Franco)
Parallel Mothers (Alberto Iglesias)
The Power of the Dog (Jonny Greenwood)

Greenwood deserved this award in 2017 for Phantom Thread and he’d probably get his first win this year for his appropriately itchy and eccentric arrangements for Power/Dog if Zimmer, who’s only got one Oscar (The Lion King, 1994) to show for his 12 nominations, hadn’t done some of his finest work ever in laying down tracks, as it were, on Planet Arrakis.

FWIW: I’m going to assume, however, that the Encanto soundtrack’s prolonged stretch run on the pop charts isn’t lost on voters, many of whom likely have kids in the house who’ve played it to death on whatever platform or machine they have. Not that such factors have always tipped the scales; voters in this category like to think they’re above such matters. But nobody should be surprised if Encanto’s name is called. On any of these.




Best Song

“Be Alive” from King Richard
“Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto
“Down to Joy” from Belfast
“No Time to Die” from No Time to Die
“Somehow You Do” from Four Good Days

Does Billie Eilish beat Beyoncé? Do either of them expect to beat Disney? Or Van Morrison? (Well, yeah, because we’re all supposed to be ticked off at Van Morrison, right?) And what about Reba McEntire? Nobody knows from her movie anyhow. Maybe that’s why she’ll win. But I’m going with who’s hot right now and that would be…would be….could be…um…

Where Antebellum Movies Go From Here

 

12 Years a Slave

 

Can anybody make a serious, imaginative movie about slavery without being either ignored or picked at?  Quentin Tarantino spent almost as much time shaking off flak for his flamboyant genre goof Django Unchained as he did taking bows and counting money. When Jonathan Demme made Toni Morrison’s Beloved into a far-better-in-hindsight movie in 1998, not even the Great and Powerful Oprah’s approbation of, and involvement in its production could make black people assemble en masse to see it when it was released. (Or anybody else. The cost was about $58 million; the movie made about $23 million, at best.)

At least, nobody’s ignoring 12 Years a Slave. It’s at or near the top of just about everybody’s year-end list of best movies. As of the second week of December, it’s made more than $35 million in American ticket sales with more expected around the bend in advance of Oscar season. Still, the movie has attracted its own high-visibility flak from such critics as Armond White, who believes Steve McQueen’s often-graphically violent rendering of Solomon Northrup’s testament as “torture porn” and “less a drama than an inhumane analysis.” David Edelstein, though he believed the movie “smashingly effective as melodrama,” is less fond of McQueen’s “cold, stark, deterministic” approach to the material.

For the record, I admired 12 Years a Slave far more than I loved it. An American/Hollywood director, no matter how smart or savvy, wouldn’t have trusted as much visually as McQueen does here. (In case you didn’t know, he’s black and British.) He isn’t afraid of stillness, of the tension and energy that reside in the act of waiting, as in the first frame, which in just showing the barely contained anxiety in the faces of slaves, gets the movie moving. That said, I doubt very much I will want to see it again. Do I need to watch, once again, a thin young woman getting whiskey tumblers thrown at her head and then having her back stripped of her ebony skin the way you strip a tree of its bark? I do not – and part of me wonders who would, or who needs to.

Still, because the movie is directed by a black man and is written by another (novelist John Ridley), 12 Years a Slave doesn’t get the same mauling Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) received in some precincts for making ciphers of its mutinous African slaves and using their rebellion as a vehicle for white nobility. And I doubt very much the contrarian attacks on McQueen and his film will keep it from winning more awards; any more than Django’s critics kept Tarantino from collecting a screenwriting Oscar.

But no amount of gold statuettes will stop the haters from jumping on the next filmmaker who wants to take yet another hard, idiosyncratic shot at America’s Original Sin. The only solution: Take more shots, make more movies, go as odd, off-base, strange, funny, stern, cold, hot or heavy as the market can bear – and then, if you’ve got the gall, go further than that. There’s no dearth of material to draw upon, from the still largely undiscovered country of slave narratives to contemporary fiction by African American writers who are claiming autonomy over their ancestral experience through daringly imaginative means.

You like lists. Here are places to go for such material:

 

Ellen Craft in disguise

 

 

 

William and Ellen Craft – True story: They were married in bondage in 1846 and escaped two years later from Georgia to Philadelphia in disguise; she (above) as an invalid white man and he as “his” valet. It would take someone with an equally attuned ear for both injustice and comedy, but it could be done.

The Good Lord Bird – Being this year’s surprise National Book Award winner, James McBride’s picaresque comic saga of a young slave boy mistaken as a girl by abolitionist John Brown has likely attracted a few cautious glances from Hollywood. Sophisticated historical satires aren’t exactly meat-and-potatoes fare for multiplexes, no matter who’s involved. But it would be funny, again, if the right tone is struck.

Flight to Canada

 

 

Flight to Canada — An Ishmael Reed seriocomic pastiche that’s never received the credit it deserves for initiating a wave of black novelists claiming imaginative autonomy over their ancestral past in daring, often incendiary fashion.  I can’t begin to imagine who would make a movie out of it or what kind of movie it would be. But whenever or however it’s done, it’ll be different from anything that came before.

 

Robert Smalls

 

 

Robert Smalls Steals a Rebel Ship– Another true story; this one about a slave (above) who in 1862 commandeered a cotton freighter with a crew of 17 fellow escapees and managed to hide his identity from Confederate checkpoints, even Fort Sumter, towards the open sea until he was able to raise a white flag to Union blockaders. That alone would be a good movie, though it was just the beginning for Smalls, who later became one of the few African Americans to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. (Speaking of which, don’t you think that by now, some great movie about black folk during Reconstruction could be made to counter that damned Birth of a Nation? Just add it to the wish list.)

 

KnownWorld

 

The Known World – Edward P. Jones’ award-winning novel about blacks owning black slaves already made readers’ heads spin off their necks. A movie version could magnify the shock-and-awe and I’m being REALLY optimistic when I say it could be done. But  I’m betting it wouldn’t cause nearly as much trouble as…

The Confessions of Nat Turner – And, yes, I mean William Styron’s version, which has been cherished and despised in near-equal measure by black and white readers alike. America wasn’t ready for Turner in the 1830s and they still aren’t ready for him in whatever form he’s presented or imagined. Which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.

 

Middle Passage cover

 

Middle Passage and Oxherding Tale — A pair of thinking-person’s ripsnorters by Charles Johnson; the former, as with 12 Years a Slave, puts a freed slave in harm’s way as he finds himself aboard a raucous slave ship heading back to Africa to pick up more “chattel.” The latter chronicles the adventures of a half-white-half-black slave negotiating his way through both worlds with philosophic insight and canny resourcefulness.

 

KIndred cover

 

Kindred — Let me quote from an Amazon review of the late Octavia Butler’s breakthrough SF novel: “Dana, a black woman living in Los Angeles in 1976, is inexplicably transported to 1815 to save the life of a small, red-haired boy on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It turns out this small boy, Rufus, is one of her white slave owning ancestors, who she knows very little about. Dana continues to be called into the past to save Rufus, and frequently stays long periods of time in the slave owning South. The only way she can get back to 1976 is to be in a life threatening situation.” How is this NOT a movie waiting to happen? Why hasn’t it happened by now?

 

And on and on and…

Spielberg & Kushner’s More Perfect “Lincoln”

Lincoln Scene 1

Lincoln – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: And what if last week’s election had gone the other way? Would that 13th Amendment have been repealed? Oops. Spoiler…Sorry about that, those-of-you-who-slept-through-high-school-history….)

Race prowls, growls and snaps along the edges of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as it never could throughout the recent political campaign. And to briefly digress, the evasions have only gotten worse since last Tuesday. So far, no one in what Sarah Palin and I love to label the “lame-stream media” wishes to acknowledge the specter of racism in these calls for secession by spoilsports in Texas and elsewhere. I’d like to believe, as Lincoln widens its presence in the Great American Multiplex, that the neo-Victorian lummoxes now wasting their energies on the Petraeus-Broadhurst Misadventures will be compelled by the movie to see this neo-Confederate furor as the maypole-dance-for-bigotry that it is. But as a good friend of mine sadly reflected today, it would have been nice to think that last week’s election results meant we’d finally put away all our childish things.

As vital as I think Lincoln is to generating a more perfect discourse on race and union, I think the movie’s gradual release better facilitates such maturity. A more big-footed nationwide bust-out of any Spielberg movie conditions audiences to expect pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle, if not dinosaurs and aliens. This is a deliberately-paced, serious-but-not-altogether-solemn epic that needs all of its 150 minutes to convey the urgency, languor and ultimate viability of the democratic process. If Steven Spielberg’s showmanship can’t make compelling cinema from material as multi-layered as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, nothing can. It can, and does.

(And, for the record, boys and girls, there are plenty of dinosaurs and exotic beings in this one as well, if only metaphorical ones. You’ll see what I mean.)

 

 

lincoln-movie-iii

 

 

As with Amazing Grace, Michael Apted’s handsome, relatively neglected 2006 movie about Britain’s abolition of slavery, Spielberg’s Lincoln isn’t about African American rights so much as it is about politics itself, and how time, personality, and the velvet-fisted power of persuasion can converge to bring about epochal, seemingly miraculous transformation. Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (little noted and not as long remembered as the Emancipation Proclamation) provides a surprisingly wide lens for viewing the contradictions and complexities of both the Republic and its haggard-but-dauntless leader in the final months of its greatest crisis. Among the many small miracles wrought by Tony Kushner’s script (and the movie is as much Kushner’s as it is Spielberg’s, maybe more) is its seamless compression of the personal travails of its protagonist with the brilliant calculation of his maneuvering. You’d have to know going into the theater that, however much the movie is packaged as civic education, you’re not going to visit a stone edifice. You’d also have to know that Daniel Day-Lewis, whose preparation is so diligent and fertile that it can sometimes spill onto the scene, nails down everything there can possibly be about Lincoln’s voice and physical movement, even the way he nestles against his sleeping youngest boy, to leave little or no doubt that this is how “our one true genius in politics” (vide Robert Lowell) really behaved in sorrow, anger and, most tellingly, in jest. (Would it really ruin things for you if I disclosed that Lincoln tells a dirty joke in the movie? Or would it make you more curious? Either way, I’m not sorry. At least I didn’t tell the joke.)

As good as Day-Lewis is, it’s not as dominant a performance as you might expect — or dread. Tommy Lee Jones, that proud son of the once-and-future Republic of Texas, dines robustly on scenery as the Pennsylvania abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, treated so shabbily by D.W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation and here given some of the better lines not assigned to Lincoln himself. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, though nowhere near as edgy as Mary Tyler Moore’s version in the 1988 TV mini-series version of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, is as persuasively grounded as she is borderline hysterical. Everyone else, from Bruce McGill and David Straithairn as cabinet stalwarts Edwin Stanton and William Seward, respectively, to a near-unrecognizable James Spader as ringleader of Lincoln’s back-ally lobbyists, makes vivid use of on-screen time, even Lee Pace as the flamboyant Copperwood Democrat Fernando Wood who wanted New York to secede and Justified’s peerless Walton Goggins, his wormy magnetism on that show checked here in the role of a tremulous fence-sitting Democrat fiercely tugged by both sides in the amendment debate.

And what about the African Americans? Well, as seems customary in the aforementioned lame-stream, they talk less here than they are talked-about. Gloria Reuben’s Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and “confidant” to the First Lady, is permitted here to ask Lincoln the question most black people are more likely to ask of him now: How, Mr. President, do you really feel about us? Mr. President finesses the answer in the movie with precisely the same ambiguity with which he dealt with the race question all his life. (He was never as ambiguous on slavery itself. The distinction isn’t as clear here as it perhaps should be, but it’s there.) David Oyewelo, as one of the black Union soldiers speaking directly with Lincoln at the movie’s beginning, is far less credulous, peering at the president’s amiable façade with visible skepticism over its owner’s commitment to that “new Birth of Freedom” cited at Gettysburg months before the movie’s story begins.

But if black people aren’t as conspicuous as whites in Lincoln, race, as noted earlier, rages insistently throughout, stalking the historical figures like a rough, fearsomely mythological beast whose presence drives everyone’s actions, even – especially – the hesitation or outright refusal to act at all. And the movie is not the least bit shy implying that it is hysteria towards the very idea of “race-mixing” rather than the dark race of the despised minority itself that is most complicit in the Civil War’s bloodshed. Nowhere is this made more visually striking than after the unsuccessful attempt by Confederacy vice-president Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and his “commissioners” to retain slavery as a prerequisite for a negotiated settlement between North and South. The impasse fades to the image of a city in flames illuminating the night, followed by a gloomy ride by Lincoln and assorted military officers through a sooty, corpse-riddled battleground in Virginia. At such a point, those familiar with Lincoln’s life and words might be inclined to think of his 1858 speech in Edwardsville, Illinois when he dares to ask whites about dehumanizing and subjugating blacks: “Are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you?”

I bet Tony Kushner knew that speech. I’m also betting that Kushner, who’s on-record defending Barack Obama’s circumspection and cool resolve against the dismissive criticism from Kushner’s left-wing allies, worked on this screenplay over the past few years with the intuitive sense that the 44th president’s struggles to finesse necessary transformation against ferocious and, at times, irrational opposition mirror those of the 16th president. Such perception gives his script a breadth, passion and level of commitment rivaling those of his stage work, notably, inevitably, Angels in America.

Lincoln, as the film takes pains to point out, is not perfect – and neither is Lincoln. Its ending comes across as Spielberg’s surrender to the temptation of making things obvious to the audience. It needed to end a few minutes earlier. (No, not this time. See for yourself.) Still, though we’re all in dire need of remedial history and (God knows) civics, Lincoln arrives not as a $50 million classroom lecture, but as a deeply enthralling diorama of tragedy and triumph bridged by the worst (avarice, bigotry, meanness of spirit) and best (equanimity, perspective, the enduring power of the open mind) from our many selves. And in case I didn’t make it clear at the outset, I’m as surprised by all this as you are – or will be.

 

lincoln finale