[Editor's Note: Oscar Prospects is your weekly analysis of an awards contender and how it's likely to fare come Oscar nomination morning. The column is comprehensive, so beware of spoilers.]
Though it boasts the strongest pedigree of all 2012 awards contenders, Lincoln doesn't play like obvious Oscar bait while you're watching it. Masterfully realized, the tame and talky saga spends most of its duration bucking the epic-biopic formula, unfolding with minimal spectacle and with characterization that's as communal as it is subject-focused. From look to language, it's no trophy-seeking construct, but a first-rate political drama made with consummate skill. So, how nice that it's been so ardently embraced by critics, racking up—at this writing—more perfect-score reviews than any other Oscar candidate this year. That critical push is going to help voters take notice of all the un-showy aspects of Lincoln's production, including Rick Carter's Art Direction, Joanna Johnston's Costume Design, and, yes, Steven Spielberg's Direction. Say all you want about Argo and Life of Pi, but this is your Best Picture frontrunner, poised to be the film with the most nods come January 10. It looks to be a downright lock in at least nine categories, and a handful of other races seem well within its reach. Had it featured some CG cannons or, say, a fresh diddy to be sung by Sally Field, you'd likely be seeing it in damn-near every lineup.
Since the awards arena is certainly trend-based, honoring the same talent and themes for multiple years in a row, pundits have their eyes on Hollywood-centric movies, rightly considering the afterglow of last year's love for Hugo and The Artist. But while the industry back-patting so prevalent in Argo is bound to go a long way (not to mention, perhaps, the flat-out shameless winking in the near-unwatchable Hitchcock), there might not be enough consideration directed toward a timeless presidential powerhouse, which lands in an election year so divisive, it's still yielding screaming matches, suicides, and petitions to secede. Lincoln's "relevance" is hardly key to what makes the film great, but it should not at all be discounted in terms of awards hopes, nor should the fact that the movie arrives 150 years after the lead-up to the Emancipation Proclamation. Ben Affleck may have his timeliness with all that Iranian strife, but Lincoln has all the noble issues it needs to make voters feel responsible, adding ample weight to the satisfaction of championing something artful. And while Tony Kushner's Oscar-bound Adapted Screenplay is far from non-progressive (by contrast, it thinks current in giving cutthroat layers to days-of-yore politics), we learned six years ago that Academy members feel cozy with baby-step equality. They may still be unprepared to crown a gay film the winner of the night, but they'll happily reward a drama about the end of American slavery.
For Daniel Day-Lewis, the Best Actor race is just a matter of waiting and campaigning, as his shoo-in nomination's conversion to a win will simply hinge on where voter's hearts lie at crunch time. Another well-oiled gear in this wonderfully subtle machine, Day-Lewis can rest easy that he'll at least clinch nomination number five. As for Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, whose conversely histrionic takes on their characters are both riveting to watch, the two are all but equally bound for recognition. Carrying a great backstory to boot (she shattered Spielberg's skepticism by fighting to retain her role and overcome the age gap with Day-Lewis), Field has particularly solid Supporting Actress chances, not least because her few scenes are vigorously well-acted, placing her Mary Todd Lincoln among the year's most fiercely embodied characters. And Jones, who should get a boost from anyone who caught his tender work in Hope Springs, stands to benefit from being the most liberal voice on screen, a sympathetic soul with an inner fire all the same. It's safe to add him to the Supporting Actor shortlist (and safe to pencil in a SAG Ensemble win for Lincoln while you're at it).
And who else from Spielberg's team will be among the honored? Though his work here is nowhere near as rousing as what he devised for War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin (two films that made him a double nominee last year), John Williams can expect an Original Score nod for his homespun mix of fiddles and piano keys, a sound deeply evocative of the history on display. Editor Michael Kahn should be in contention too, alongside Oscar favorite Janusz Kaminksi, whose Cinematography has already launched many an analytical article (the oft-ethereal, gunmetal grit of the movie's look is indelible). Let's not forget the hair and Makeup department, who are primed to score kudos for aiding one uncanny, iconic transformation, which has had folks buzzing since EW dropped that first Day-Lewis-in-character photo. At this stage, it seems more than plausible that a majority of Academy voters will cast their ballots for Lincoln, Spielberg's best film since Minority Report. But then, one never knows how things might develop, especially with the formidable Les Misérables on the horizon. Lincoln is itself, after all, about the winds of change.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, Steven Spielberg; Best Actor, Daniel Day-Lewis; Best Supporting Actress, Sally Field; Best Supporting Actor, Tommy Lee Jones; Best Adapted Screenplay, Tony Kushner; Best Editing; Best Cinematography; Best Original Score.
Possibilities: Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Makeup; Best Supporting Actor, David Strathairn.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: None.