Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field
There are lot of people who would call Daniel Day-Lewis the greatest actor of his generation, and indeed, the 55-year old thespian has garnered an almost-unprecedented amount of critical acclaim and awards attention in his relatively sparse career. Since his first credited role in 1982’s “Gandhi,” Day-Lewis has starred in no more than 18 films and has often taken expansive, two-or three-year breaks in between projects. But that lack of prolific tendency has hardly slowed the actor’s rise to prominence: he’s won the Academy Award for Best Actor twice (first for 1991’s “My Left Foot” and then again in 2007 for “There Will Be Blood”), contended on two other occasions (1993’s “In the Name of the Father” and 2002’s “Gangs of New York”) and racked up plenty of praise in the intervening years.
No one has ever won the Best Actor Oscar three times. In the realm of two-time winners, Day-Lewis is in very fine company indeed, surrounded by some of the greatest actors of all time, from Spencer Tracy to Tom Hanks, Marlon Brando to Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson to Dustin Hoffman. But despite a myriad of terrific performances from each of those greats, none of them have ever been able to snag that elusive third Oscar in the lead actor category.
Undoubtedly, that historic precedent is one that Day-Lewis is hoping to shatter, and from the moment it was announced that he would be playing Abraham Lincoln in a Steven Spielberg biopic, awards pundits began to wonder whether or not this would be the year for him to do it. Certainly, the role is the kind that nominates itself: in recent years, everyone from Meryl Streep to Philip Seymour Hoffman to Reese Witherspoon to the aforementioned Sean Penn has taken home an Oscar for playing a historic character. But Spielberg’s film, simply titled “Lincoln,” is hardly an average biopic, and Day-Lewis’s performance is more organic and complex than any of those listed above. In other words, if it weren’t for the precedents stacked against him, Day-Lewis would easily be the undisputed frontrunner for the Best Actor prize.
But the most refreshing thing about “Lincoln” is that it does not simply rest on the laurels of its outstanding lead performance. While the finest films in the biopic genre often fill out their supporting casts with ringers (“Milk,” the 2008 film that won Penn his second Oscar, would not have worked without a trio of terrific supporting actors to help carry it along), the more pedestrian entries often fail precisely because they rely too much on their lead actor or actress. For better or worse, “Lincoln” absolutely does not have that problem, and the vast and varied ensemble that Spielberg has assembled here is one of the greatest acting collectives seen in recent cinema
The most notable supporting players—Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican radical who helps Lincoln push his abolitionist 13th amendment through Congress—are both Oscar-worthy in their own right (and both performers have won Oscars for previous films). Jones is especially notable, shredding the opinions and personas of his opposing Democratic congressman with some of the most well-constructed and gleeful insults this side of Shakespeare. And his key scene, where he shows a willingness to compromise his own radical beliefs in favor of a small step forward for human rights (in a city of uncompromising bureaucrats, no less), is nothing short of show-stopping. Field gets a more thankless task, playing a woman who is in turns desperate, afraid, proud and borderline unhinged, but you have to admire how thoroughly she commits to everything she’s given.
Beyond a flourish of youthful star power (Joseph Gordon Levitt, completing his big year with a brief but effective turn as Lincoln’s eldest son), the background is filled out almost entirely by noted character actors. There’s David Straitharn as William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State and close confidante; there’s Hal Holbrook as Francis Peter Blair, who tries to arrange a peace agreement between the Union and the Confederacy; we have James Spader and John Hawkes as operatives who helped Lincoln buy his majority congressional vote; there’s Jared Harris, creating a vivid Ulysses S. Grant in his brief moments on the screen; and even still there are so many I have left unmentioned, from Jackie Earle Haley to Michael Stuhlbarg to a dozen others. This cast is astoundingly deep and meticulously structured, each actor adding noticeably to an ensemble that lives and breathes like we’re watching a stage drama, scene changes and all, play out on the screen before us.
And that’s how this film functions, like a big, lengthy play about the Legislative process, about the arguing and shady double-dealing and political intrigue that’s been infesting Washington for ages. Spielberg, an expert, at this point, in depicting war on the big screen (he won Best Director twice, both for films that centered around World War II events, and earned a Best Picture nomination last year for his WWI epic, “War Horse”), restrains those elements here. An opening shot of soldiers fighting and dying in a muddy swamp sets a dark and dangerous tone for the film, but it also misleads the audience: never again does screenwriter Tony Kushner take us near the field of battle. He spends most of the time (and the film is a substantial chunk of that, overstaying its welcome a bit at 150 minutes) examining the “real Lincoln.”
For the most part, Kushner does an outstanding job of humanizing the historical figure, painting him as an imperfect husband, a conflicted father and a flawed, possibly corrupt leader. The screenwriter certainly doesn’t downplay the President’s questionable political maneuverings, while numerous Democratic opponents declare him, outright, as a tyrant. Meanwhile, in one particularly riveting scene, Lincoln discusses the Emancipation Proclamation, acknowledging the fact that instating it may not have been, constitutionally speaking, within his power.
Elsewhere though, the film misleadingly portrays Abraham Lincoln as a righteous defender of black rights and equality, hell-bent on pushing the 13th amendment through Congress at all costs (even if that cost is “Confederate peace”). Kushner, of course, never acknowledges some of Lincoln’s more controversial statements on the subject (“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it…” or “I never have been in favor of bringing about the equality of the white and black races”). Nor does the film touch upon Lincoln’s disregard for numerous constitutional provisions, from his dictatorial suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus to his fiercely anti-secessionist stance that cost the country 600,000 lives. Kershner and Spielberg’s decision to look mostly at the heroic Lincoln of the history books and public school curriculums is hardly surprising, but it does ring out as a missed opportunity for a film that, at its best moments, is an examination of human weakness, imperfection, ignorance and prejudice.
But even though it places its hero on a pedestal, even though it drags periodically and goes on for at least 20 minutes too long, “Lincoln” still attains must-see status on the strength of Day-Lewis’s performance alone. He’s impossibly good, a reminder of the power, vulnerability and realism that only the best actors can carry with them through every film they do. Day-Lewis has always been in another league, but this is arguably his definitive performance. Cinephiles will still tout his towering work in “There Will Be Blood” as his finest hour, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself hanging on his every word here, waiting for his monologues, both bombastic and restrained, to drop, and then feeling the hairs stand up along your spine as they do. Removed from political opinions, despite long-running criticisms of Spielberg’s sentimental storytelling techniques and regardless of a movie that is, undoubtedly, uneven and overlong, it would be impossible to ignore the level of craft that Day-Lewis achieves here, and ultimately, that should be the legacy of this “Lincoln.”