16 November 2012


Daniel Day-Lewis is shown in a scene from "Lincoln."

No figure in American history has maintained a more prominent place in the collective consciousness than Abraham Lincoln.

The image of his bearded face and top hat is burned into our brains.

We start learning about him as schoolchildren—how he rose from his meager beginnings, mostly self-taught, to become our 16th president, lead the nation through the horrors of the Civil War, free the slaves and die by an assassin's hand.

He is a towering figure, an icon, known to the average person more for what he did than how he accomplished those feats or who he was.

In "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's masterful film covering the last three months and change of Lincoln's life, we see the politician at work, maneuvering and exerting all his influence to push through the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) and end the Civil War.

Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," the movie is set primarily in January 1865, when most agree the conflict is nearing its end, but the nation is as divided as ever over the issue of slavery. Lincoln believes the amendment's passage will bring a swift end to the war, while others say the South will insist on the amendment being dropped as a term of surrender.

Lincoln's urgency is driven also by uncertainty over his Emancipation Proclamation, made two years earlier and which he was unsure if he even had the power to issue. He decided he needed that power, but should it be challenged in court, his executive order might not hold up.

Lincoln lays out the dilemma to his Cabinet in a mesmerizing scene. It's one of many showcase clips for Daniel Day-Lewis, who brings Lincoln to life with a spellbinding performance. His Lincoln is a friendly, quietly confident sort, a raconteur who seemingly never came across a story or joke not worth telling. He's also a shrewd politician unafraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty by playing the backroom games of Washington. He's not above employing a group of shady operatives (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes) to buy votes for his amendment.

Day-Lewis gives Lincoln a high-pitched, almost shrill voice that seems much closer to contemporary accounts than the booming baritone we so often hear in movies. With his lanky frame, he is a good match physically for our tallest president, and he walks with the stilted gait for which Lincoln was known, his shoulders stooped by the weight of the nation and a life plagued by loss.

The performance is so powerful that you cannot take your eyes off of Day-Lewis whenever he is onscreen, even when he's in the background, out of focus.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner, Spielberg's "Munich" (2005) writer, doesn't take us inside Lincoln's head—I don't know how that would have possible anyway—but it lets us feel what it might have been like to have been in his presence, to see how he interacted with others, to fall under the spell of his oration.

Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, is shown in a scene from "Lincoln."
Those surrounding him include his closest friend and advisor, Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), who helps the guide the 13th Amendment through the political process, along with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a staunch abolitionist congressman. The superb cast also includes Sally Field as the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon Levitt as the Lincolns' eldest son, who, against his parents' wishes, aims to enlist in the Union army.

This is a different breed of Steven Spielberg movie. It's not filled with the horrific violence and bloody battles of his other historical epics, or the overwhelming sentimentality that has marked so much of his career. Driven by dialogue, the director mostly stays out of the way and allows the extraordinary performances to carry the picture. (Day-Lewis will win his third Oscar, and nominations may be in line for Jones and Fields, as well.) Spielberg understands Lincoln is bigger than him—bigger than any filmmaker, bigger than any of us—and showing him in this new, more human light only enhances his greatness.

Greg’s Grade: A

(Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. 153 minutes.)

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Great review Greg. Didn’t love the movie, but definitely had a good time with it and loved every second of Daniel Day’s performance. He will definitely get a nomination this year.