With Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis has topped himself again. It seems unfair that he is this good. Day-Lewis encompasses the role of the revered 16th President of the United States in every conceivable way. It is a performance certain to be discussed for a long time. The movie is pretty great too.
Lincoln focuses on the recently re-elected President’s struggle, in the midst of the Civil War, with a divided House of Representatives, to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. It is impossible to watch this movie after the recent election without considering Obama and the “do-nothing” Congress. But these connections are not lingered upon. The film is more interested in the man.
Day-Lewis uses his physicality to present not just the legend, but the exhausted man behind the legend. He uses his voice, pitched up but still tempered, both to command a crowd and softly lay out his thoughts. It is a tool, the same as it was for the real Lincoln. In some of his most powerful scenes, Day-Lewis merely listens. Taking it all in, his eyes convey his contemplation, his buried emotion, and when he responds it feels genuine, like a great mind sharing his reasoning.
And apparently, Lincoln liked to talk, at great length. At one point, a character laments that the President is about to launch into another one of his stories. Lincoln is full of anecdotes and funny jokes, but he’s really thinking out loud. It’s his process, how he searched for the truth. The film has a love of words, and the way it is written, you begin to love them too.
All of this talking, the arcane language, rhythms, and personality require some acclimating, but I have enjoyed movies of late that require the viewer to tap into their wavelength and this is no different. There’s no need to bone up on your history, since the film delicately lays out each character’s position and significance. What might slow you down is the barrage of great actors popping up every other minute. From the well-known, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to many, many “hey, that guy,” the film is stacked with talent. It’s a parade of awesome facial hair and accents. Other than Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader are the MVPs. As Thaddeus Stevens, Jones goes past playing generic, “cranky old guy” and becomes the soul of the picture. It’s subtle, but some of his best work. Spader is the comic relief, and he damn near upends the whole thing. It’s not what the other guys are doing, but it makes it no less joyous.
A few minor bits play awkwardly, like leftovers from the overreaching from Amistad. Sally Field is solid as Mary Todd. But it wasn’t immediately clear what purpose she served in the story, eventually she is a part of a highlight scene. Still, of all the characters, I could have used less of her. There’s so much that works that I don’t want to mention the atrocious ending, but somebody has to. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but there’s a perfect image and stopping point in Lincoln, then the film keeps on going for 3 more painfully unnecessary minutes.
Steven Spielberg, re-teaming with his Munich writer Tony Kushner, goes for a mannered approach. The cinematography and John Williams’ pleasant score are subdued. It’s like Spielberg doesn’t want anything taking the focus away from the subject, which is a smart choice. The movie places Abraham Lincoln on a pedestal to deconstruct him, to separate the myth from the man. Acknowledging the genius as that of a man haunted by many things. His patience informs his wisdom. By showing us his flawed human nature, that he didn’t always have the answer and had to find his way to it, the movie makes an already revered figure seem even greater.