Published on: December 18, 2012
I must begin with a simple fact of life: Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest screen actor of all time, bar none. He may not make films with the frequency of some other stars, but when he chooses a role, he throws himself into it with such zeal that he disappears into his character’s body, never to be seen again until press interviews. I was so excited for Lincoln to come out that I blew my expectations for Day-Lewis’ performance completely out of any ordinarily realistic sphere. The best thing about finally getting to see it was that he exceeded those expectations. The film itself features a more mature Spielberg feel, and while it does stumble into a few of his classic Hollywood pitfalls, Lincoln is overall a solid picture that is pushing into this year’s top lists due not in small part to Daniel Day-Lewis’ incredible transformation.
Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is tired. It’s January 1865, and the President is trying to deal with issues at home with emotionally distressed wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and military-obsessed son Robert (Joseph-Gordon Levitt), while at the same time trying against all odds to get the 13th Amendment through Congress. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) are behind Lincoln, but the number of representatives he has to convince in order to win is upwards of 20. Seward hires a band of small-time hucksters, led by W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), to offer the Democrats needed to secure the passing of the amendment any mid-level job they want in the new administration. The task proves to be even more difficult than expected.
The acting, of course, is impeccable. I will cease fawning over Daniel Day-Lewis for a moment to acknowledge the capable supporting cast, who perform the near-impossible task of not looking foolish next to Day-Lewis. Sally Field does her best work in years, especially in her scenes standing up to Lincoln for neglecting her after their son Willie died. Tommy Lee Jones is grumpy as usual, and uses it to his advantage, showcasing the flowery 19th century language and sharp insult humor that runs through the screenplay.
The period is detailed surprisingly well. Scenes are lit with the intriguing mix of sunlight, gas lamps, and candlelight that would most realistically have been the best light available in those days. The costumes are impeccably designed, uniforms correct in even the most minor aspects. It is a shame that the accuracy did not cross over so well into the politics. Adapting a screenplay from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s monstrous biographical masterpiece Team of Rivals must have been a difficult task, and Lincoln undoubtedly had to focus on a very small part of the presidency to keep a reasonable running time. However, even for the most casual of history buffs, the absence of a portrayal of Vice Presidents Hannibal Hamlin and Andrew Johnson is very noticeable. The book does not talk about them much either, but I think creative liberties could certainly have been taken to be more true to history.
Because of the film’s success and the fact that this is an election year, there has been widespread debate about whether or not Lincoln is being portrayed sympathetically. Spielberg is not devoted to completely tearing Abe down, that’s for sure. The president is often visually put above everyone else (not only because of his height) and seen through pools of white light or unusually bright sunlight. However, Spielberg doesn’t deify him either. The movie is about the struggle to end slavery, and there is a lot of discussion about how the Emancipation Proclamation was not necessarily legal, and could have been overturned by even local judges without an amendment to the Constitution. That amendment’s passing is being pursued illegally as well, so there is ongoing debate in Lincoln as to whether or not the ends justify the means. The president himself obviously thinks so, but we are given enough counter-arguments for the case to be made that the film is not exactly taking sides.
In the end, there are more reasons to see Lincoln than there are not to see it. A fine screenplay, stronger than usual for Spielberg, plus a killer supporting cast and an excellent score from John Williams make for a potent mix. Besides, Daniel Day-Lewis with this role will probably become the first man in film history to win three Best Actor Academy Awards in a career. So for a small price, you can be a part of history and have fun too. Don’t miss the chance.