James Spader did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying William N. Bilbo in Lincoln.
James Spader plays one of Secretary of State Seward's political operative whose whole point is to try to sway votes through offering political appointments. Spader in the first scene we see him very much tries to make a very unique character out of Bilbo as a very particular sort of man. Everything from the way he sits, to the way he speak, to the way he smokes, to the way he sweats is something that very much makes him a man who sticks out. All of these things Spader does only succeeds in amplifying Bilbo as a character, making him far more memorable as well as giving some indication to where exactly this man came from.
Spader honestly has quite a challenge to stick out because he comes in and out of the film for only short periods of time, even seconds in some cases. Spader though does make the impact he should with his role as Bilbo and he is always a delight whenever he does appear. His comedic chops here are impeccable as they are very much in character and much of the humor derives from his gruff and spent demeanor. His timing is marvelous making a humorous moment whenever he does have the chance, that are always very amusing but still what he does always fits entirely with the rest of the film.
Importantly Spader does as well shows the cunning of this odd man and in his expressions he suggests a very real intelligence within Bilbo's haggard carcass. A particularly strong moment is just a quick little look which is toward one of the congressmen he has been pressuring. The point and look is perfect and it only helps in making it believable that the congressman would decide to vote the right way. This is a short but very sweet performance by James Spader taking the spotlight in just the right way that adds to the film so nicely without seeming like a forced character in the least. He uses what he has wonderfully well giving an entertaining supporting performance, that only left me wanting to see more of his unique character.
Strathairn does two very important things in every moment in which he pressures Lincoln about his choices and tactics. The first is that he shows Seward to be a forceful man, and one who really does put a great deal of force in his questions that he asks Valjean. Strathairn makes Seward an incisive man who very much does get right to the point with Lincoln. At the same time though he also does show that the two are very much friends, and even when he is asking Lincoln the hard questions. There is always a certain warmth too in his demeanor towards Lincoln that shows that it is due to his concern for his friend that he asks these questions.
In scenes with his political operatives Seward is very good portraying Seward as man with a great deal of experience, who certainly knows what must be done. He expresses quite well not only the knowledge of Seward, but as well in a subtle fashions his frustrations to have to fall into a lower level to do what must be done to get the amendment moving forward. Unlike Tommy Lee Jones he does not get a lot of time to portray this personal struggle in Seward, yet the great thing about this performance is that he still manages to bring this life within his performance even with the little time offered to him.
This is for the most part a very subtle performance by David Strathairn after all he does not get a single scene devoted entirely to himself, unlike a certain co-star. This leaves a lot of what he must do is in his reactions in the scenes where Lincoln is in meeting. Now Strathairn does his very best to reflect Seward's feelings through the struggle for the amendment. Strathairn extra effort is quite impressive considering the limitations. Strathairn is always very spot on in every moment reflecting Seward's concerns skillfully particularly in displaying the difference between him as Lincoln as there is hint a pessimism in his face something missing from Lincoln.
Strathairn definitely gets the short end of the stick here as Seward seems like he might have been far more in an earlier draft. Its a real shame how Seward is treated considering what Strathairn is able to accomplish with little he is given. I really find it odd the way there is not even a mention of him at the end considering Seward was severely injured, and was almost killed at the same time as Lincoln. I mean come on, the film could have at least had one line from Lincoln in regards to Seward before he goes off to Ford's theater, and even though we would not see him it could at least shown us one last indications of their relationship. Nevertheless this is a good performance since Strathairn left me only wanting more of Seward's story, something that I could not say about Tommy Lee Jones.