2 hours, 30 minutes
At this point, it almost seems redundant to talk about what an incredible actor Daniel Day-Lewis is. Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington; all marvelous actors, all Best Actor winners, but somehow not even in the same league with Day-Lewis. Where those other actors are superb at portraying a particular character, Day-Lewis is able to become that character, inside and out, the performance dropping away, leaving only a sense of truth.
Yes, I know how overblown and ridiculous that sounds, but it’s difficult to describe his work in films like “There Will Be Blood,” “Gangs of New York,” and this season’s masterpiece, “Lincoln,” using less enthusiastic phrasing. But what’s amazing about the latest historical biopic by Steven Spielberg isn’t simply that Daniel Day-Lewis knocks it out of the park, it’s that his performance is just the start of the conversation.
“Lincoln,” based in part on the Doris Kearns Goodwin historical non-fiction book, “Team of Rivals” about Lincoln and his unlikely and antagonistic cabinet, focuses in on a single element of the president and his tumultuous term of office. Taking place over the course of a few weeks, the film describes the incredible efforts to pass the controversial and, frankly, unpopular 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery in the United States. Realizing that he has one chance to truly rid his country of this repellent institution once and for all, Lincoln begs, cajoles, and outright bullies recalcitrant members of the House of Representatives to gain the necessary votes, making a difficult devil’s bargain in the process.
The South, all but beaten at this point, has begun responding to overtures for peace talks. If the war ends, however, the North, which is only slightly more fond of black people than the citizenry of the South, would feel no real urgency to end slavery. Abraham Lincoln, the man who wants nothing more than to heal the nation and end the bloodshed, is faced with the choice of allowing the fighting to go on indefinitely in order to force through his personal agenda. The movie chronicles these efforts, first through a series of intermediaries, to give the President political cover, and then by the man himself. The result, though admittedly very talky, is powerful, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and often very funny. “Lincoln” is a brilliant film.
Seeing a movie like “Lincoln” makes me wish that I had the extensive knowledge of my father, a Civil War buff and history teacher, at my fingers. Even with my own limited knowledge of the era, I could tell that the research was meticulous, the production department striving to accurately portray the times and players with utmost detail. Nearly every important political figure in the United States Congress gets a minute or two of screen time, and you know the historical accuracy department was working overtime.
In particular, I was impressed with David Strathairn, as William Seward, and Sally Field as the long-suffering Mary Todd Lincoln. Strathairn is a great actor, and his Seward, especially his look, brought to life the cantankerous politician who, earlier in his career, was responsible for the purchase of Alaska. Sally Field, though, goes above and beyond in her performance of the difficult First Lady, a woman whose strong will and intelligence was marred by emotional debilities brought on by grief and physical infirmity. Her scenes alongside Day-Lewis as the President are among the best and most moving of the film. The two depended upon each other completely, but were often desperately at odds. I was a little bit afraid that casting Field in the role would accomplish little more than to give a big name star an easy role and add a little gravitas to the cast list, but the actress brings her A-game.
But even as good as she is, no one can hold a candle to Daniel Day-Lewis who brings the sixteenth president to life in a way I’d never imagined.
It occurred to me, as I was watching this intimate portrait of a man with the world on his shoulders, that I’d never given much thought to the man, beyond the historical and trivial facts that we all know. He was depressed, he was tall, he gave the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. This film takes what you know, and creates a whole, encompassing portrait filled with small moments, quiet kindnesses and even moments of ruthlessness.
You often hear of a good actor or actress that they do as much with their eyes as they do with their dialogue — Tommy Lee Jones is such an actor, and he does well with his role as firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Day-Lewis, by contrast, creates much of his performance with his hands. There is such a deliberateness in all of his movements, and the slow, gentle way he will place a hand on the shoulder of a subordinate, or reach for a pen to write words that will end up being momentous, all go into creating as whole and full a character as you’re likely to ever see on screen.
Of course, there’s more to the movie than just Daniel Day-Lewis. Providing the film’s comic relief are James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as the trio of political operatives assigned to put pressure or add incentive for members of Congress hesitant to sign on to the amendment. I normally don’t enjoy James Spader, but he is very funny in his role, without being particularly showy or zany. The movie is better for the scenes he’s in.
In addition to the numerous impressive performances, the script is tight and very well-written, and the cinematography, from long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski, is beautiful, and very subtle.
The most credit for the success of this film must go to Steven Spielberg himself, however. That “Lincoln” is as good as it is, is almost as remarkable a feat as that of two of the director’s most lauded films, “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan.” When you think about it, those two films, excellent as they are, have big, bold stories to tell, and those stories lend themselves to stirring, gripping filmmaking. Certainly Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War are both equally bold subjects to chronicle, but by choosing to tackle such a small, though crucial, piece of both Lincoln’s career and of the War, Spielberg hands himself a seemingly impossible task — to make an entertaining, engrossing film about what is essentially an effort to bring a House bill to the floor for a vote. Certainly Spielberg’s strength is in finding the intimate, personal heart of a large, flashy story, but here his job is almost the opposite, to give us a view of the grander, wider scope of the difficult moral struggle taking place between a relative few number of people. This aim is handily achieved.
“Lincoln” is an excellent film, and one that I imagine will be shown in history classes around the country at some point in the future. By bringing the mythic hero Abraham Lincoln down to earth and showing him as he likely really was, Spielberg manages not to diminish the man in any way.
The only real downside to the film is that, by choosing to portray such a narrow window of Lincoln’s life, I fear that any other film version of Lincoln will seem lacking by comparison. I didn’t want this movie to be six hours long, but at the same time, I want to see a detailed examination of the assassination from beginning to end, starring these actors with this writer and director. I want to see Daniel Day-Lewis play Lincoln in the early days of his career, and see this Lincoln rise up through the political ranks to become the man we know today. I realize this is unlikely. Day-Lewis isn’t really a franchise kind of actor, but as it is, “Lincoln” leaves me wanting more.
“Lincoln” is rated PG-13 for gruesome scenes of battle and the wages of war, and for language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.