Day-Lewis’ extraordinary performance powers Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’
It’s probably counter-productive to try to shoehorn Steven Spielberg’s massive historical epic, Lincoln, into the realm of allegory. Yes, this tale of political maneuvering at the close of the American Civil War portrays a House literally divided against itself, one party trying to reconcile the conservative and “radical” elements within itself, two parties so ideologically diverse they can’t engage in debate on the floor without hurling invective at each other, and a recently re-elected president struggling to balance his personal principles with his need to heal the nation.
But the beauty, and genius, of Spielberg’s film is the way it defies analogy to any specific statesman, party, or era. Instead, it provides a cogent glimpse into the American political process itself, the very democracy that Americans of all persuasions believe they support, although few of us understand exactly how it works. In this respect, Spielberg’s view of the contentious state of American politics, then as now, is as timeless as it is fascinating.
That said, however, what gives this film its touch of greatness is very specific, indeed. Abraham Lincoln, was no ordinary statesman, but a moral visionary who risked everything to end the institution of slavery. Extraordinary, too, is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in the role. From his unruly, tufted hair and scruffy beard, to the hint of windswept prairie in his light-pitched voice, from his gentle, self-deprecating laughter, to the careworn curve of his shoulders, to the deliberate way he folds or unfolds his long limbs in sitting or standing, Day-Lewis inhabits the role with every fiber of his being. When Day-Lewis collects his third Best Actor Oscar next February, he will so have earned it.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s non-fiction book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and graced with an intelligent, compassionate script by Tony Kushner, Lincoln begins in the new year of 1865. Two months into his second term as President, and four years into the disastrous Civil War, Lincoln determines to achieve two apparently opposite goals—end the war, and pass a 13th Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery. Even though his cabinet, led by Secretary of State, William Seward (a canny, stalwart David Strathairn), warns him that sacrificing the Amendment is the only way to broker peace with the Confederacy.
Unofficially dispatching cantankerous elder statesman Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), co-founder of the fledgling Republican Party, to meet with a CSA delegation, and urging his team on the ground to canvass the hated House Democrats for the 20 remaining votes needed to pass the Amendment, Lincoln forms a risky alliance with Radical Republican and staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (a delicious Tommy Lee Jones). Coping with his own self-doubt, the ire of his despairing wife (an excellent Sally Field) when their son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) quits law school to join the Union Army, and fear-mongering from anti-abolitionists in the House, Lincoln somehow musters the courage to prevail against impossible odds for the good of the nation.
Condensing most of the action into a single turbulent month in Lincoln’s presidency helps Spielberg to focus on the compelling character study at the heart of his story. In our era of bullet-proof limos and omnipresent Secret Service, it seems incredible to see this Lincoln traveling around in a single carriage, visiting troops in the field, viewing carnage up close, or dropping in at a military hospital to chat with the wounded soldiers. But it also shows us why Lincoln was so beloved.
And here is where Day-Lewis’ performance is so compelling. Stirring speeches are fine (and Day-Lewis delivers those with an incredible accumulation of force and conviction). But it’s in the smaller, gentle moments that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln really captures our imagination—parenting his adored youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), joshing around with awed common folk who petition him with minor legal matters, or driving his aides and opponents alike crazy with his folksy stories about his years as a lawyer in Illinois. This is a Lincoln savvy enough to wield great power, but who never loses the common touch, and Spielberg and company impress us with what a rare and laudable gift that is.
★★★1/2 (out of four)
With Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Hal Holbrook. Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Steven Spielberg. (PG-13) 150 minutes.
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