In a slightly different world—say, the world of 1994 to 1996 or so—Lincoln would be a shoo-in for best picture: A Spielberg-directed, weighty, historical epic on a topic of deep importance featuring A-plus performances from well-pedigreed actors and authentic period detail? Lock it up!
Indeed, consensus early on was that Lincoln was a sure-fire bet to take home the gold. And it will, in all likelihood, rack up a few trophies (Daniel Day Lewis is a pretty good bet, as is Tommy Lee Jones). But, in something of a surprise, it seems unlikely to take home the big prize.
Spielberg’s look at the passage of the 13th Amendment is a perfectly fine picture within the milieu it is working: Gauzy, middlebrow, and inoffensive, Lincoln combines historical drama with a surprising dash of humor to leaven the affair. It is occasionally a bit bloated—Joseph Gordon Levitt’s subplot as Lincoln’s unappreciated son could have been jettisoned if only to cut into the film’s brutally long running time—but, on the whole, it is a perfectly staid, perfectly shot film.
And, frankly, that perfection is one of the reasons I’m glad it is fading from contention.
Lincoln is inoffensive (though not bland), expertly filmed (though unimaginative) and good but not great (though it has flashes of greatness, especially when the actors let loose). It is, honestly, a film I have a hard time disliking but an equally hard time loving.
Spielberg is, in a way, a victim of his own competence. He makes very good, very emotionally affecting films with what appears to be the greatest of ease. Unfairly or not, we take him for granted, even when he disappears for a while (between 2005’s Munich and 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg made only one film).