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 Monday night at the New York Film Festival, 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.”
Then he unveiled the film — though termed “unfinished,” only technical aspects remain to be completed — to an appreciative if not overwhelmingly loud festival audience.
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 frontrunner practically from the minute 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.
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.
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 Thandie Newton as well as Kushner, mingled at a reception.
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 Pena took the stage to introduce Spielberg and noted that the director showed his first film decades ago at the less prominent New Directors/ New Films festival.
“Years later,” Pena said, “he’s finally made it.”
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