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'Lincoln' sets off on awards campaign trail

A surprise screening of Steven Spielberg's new film at the New York Film Festival bolsters its status as a contender.

October 08, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik | This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.
  • Director Steven Spielberg speaks onstage at NYFF 50th Anniversary surprise screening of "Lincoln."
Director Steven Spielberg speaks onstage at NYFF 50th Anniversary surprise… (Larry Busacca / Getty Images…)

NEW YORK — "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's heavily anticipated historical drama about several critical weeks late in the life of the 16th U.S. president, made its debut at an unannounced screening at the New York Film Festival Monday night, where it got off to a strong if not spectacular awards-season start.

"This is a journey for me unlike any other," Spielberg told an adoring crowd before the screening, "a journey through history I hoped would never end."


FOR THE RECORD:
"Lincoln": In the Oct. 9 Calendar section, an article about a screening of "Lincoln" at the New York Film Festival said that one of the actresses in attendance was Thandie Newton. It was Gloria Reuben who was there. —

Then he unveiled the film — though termed "unfinished," only technical aspects remain to be completed — to an appreciative if not overwhelmingly loud festival audience.

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FOR THE RECORD:
"Lincoln": In the Oct. 9 Calendar section, an article about "Lincoln" screening at the New York Film Festival identified Abraham Lincoln's secretary of State as George Seward. His name was William Seward.

Centering on Abraham Lincoln's attempt to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in the waning days of the Civil War, the movie is dialogue-heavy, focusing on legislative process and party politics as Lincoln and his aides try to win the necessary votes from both fellow Republicans and Democrats across the aisle.

There is also a moral crisis at the center of the film, as Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is forced to confront the fact that expediting the end of the war could mean jeopardizing the passage of the amendment. Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), are also locked in a battle over whether to allow son Robert to enlist in a conflict that appears to be over.

The "Lincoln" screening is a critical first stop for the Nov. 9 Disney release, which has been touted as an Oscar front-runner practically from when its production was announced. It is also an important test for Spielberg and his DreamWorks studio; the legendary director's 2011 film, "War Horse," was a modest performer at the box office and with award voters. ("Lincoln" will premiere in Los Angeles as the closing-night film of the AFI Fest on Nov. 8.)

After the screening, "Lincoln's" awards picture clarified somewhat. Its seriousness of purpose and modern echoes — it is sure to draw comparisons to logjams in the modern Congress — bolster its awards pedigree.

But the movie also plays on the talky side; to a great extent it is devoid of the histrionics and schmaltz that populate some awards contenders.

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Judging by both the events on-screen and in the room, Day-Lewis, a longtime Oscar favorite, solidified his status as a lead actor contender. He plays the lead role with an understated quality, often speaking in quiet, lyrical tones instead of the more scenery-chewing moments glimpsed in the trailer.

His head often slightly bowed and his voice a quavering drawl that reminded a few filmgoers of Bill Clinton, Lincoln is prone to pausing and telling stories or jokes, which prompt even some aides to roll their eyes.

Day-Lewis' Lincoln also tends to grandiloquence even in private speech; when he utters the line "time is the great thickener of all things," Secretary of State George Seward (David Strathairn) first nods in agreement, then quips, "Actually, I have no idea what you meant by that."

Much of the comic relief comes from Tommy Lee Jones, who as the aggressively liberal congressman Thaddeus Stevens gets off searing insults of the opposition.

Before the screening, actors from the film, including Field, Strathairn and Gloria Reuben as well as screenwriter Tony Kushner, mingled at a reception.

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While the audience was peppered with insiders — including film-world figures such as producer Scott Rudin — the room also featured a larger number of ordinary filmgoers who weren't even sure what movie they were about to see.

Before the movie began, Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña took the stage to introduce Spielberg and noted that the director showed his first film at the less prominent New Directors/New Films festival.

"Years later," Peña said, "he's finally made it."

[For the Record, 7:22 a.m. Oct. 9: An earlier version of this story misidentified the actress Gloria Reuben.]

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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