Daniel Day-Lewis is unforgettable as Lincoln
The Civil War marked one of the sharpest turning points in America’s story, and none of its leading figures looms higher in memory than Abraham Lincoln. Curiously, that familiar face from the $5 bill has seldom been seen in movies, except in glimpses, since 1939, when Henry Fonda starred in Young Mr. Lincoln. In Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the most accomplished actors of our time, takes a turn as the president in the months before his term was cut short. Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Lincoln maintains gravitas while seldom succumbing to the lifelessness of a historical tableau vivant or the tired outlines of a history lesson. And the focus never strays from the title character in a remarkable, unforgettable portrayal.
Whether or not it’s true that cast and crew addressed Day-Lewis as “Mr. President” through the entire run of the production, the actor has a well-deserved reputation for burrowing deep inside his characters. Lincoln was the first president to be extensively photographed; everyone knows his face, and any good makeup artist could endow Day-Lewis with the visage of Honest Abe. But to reach Lincoln’s soul, the actor read every description he could find of Lincoln’s body language and manner of speaking. He walks through the film with the slightly stooped gravity of a thin-boned giant whose height was only emphasized by his stovepipe hat. A smile is seldom far from his thin lips, and neither is the sort of easygoing story a country lawyer would tell a jury to persuade them to see the case his way. At times, the thoughts of Day-Lewis’ Lincoln seem beyond his audience, as if he were telling stories to generations unborn.
Lincoln begins near the start of 1865, with the Confederacy in retreat but the war continuing in fiery crescendos. The death toll is a canker on the president’s conscience, as is the anxiety that a Southern defeat will not necessarily end slavery. To accomplish this, he needs the House of Representatives, a chamber of rancor where florid rhetoric flourishes like orchids in a hothouse, to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The bill is stuck, but Lincoln is determined to gain its passage.
The storybook Lincoln would simply have persuaded the majority of congressmen by calling on the better angels of human nature, but the screenwriter knows enough history to realize that it wasn’t that simple. Lincoln was a wily politician who bought the votes of many legislators through patronage, old-fashioned horse-trading and carefully calibrated deception. To the radicals led by Thaddeus Stevens (a corpulent, beef-eating Tommy Lee Jones), who pressed for a declaration of racial equality and full citizenship for blacks, Lincoln counseled that such steps were impossible in the America of their time. He was a pragmatist, reaching for a goal that was difficult, but attainable with effort. And he faced a conundrum: If he ended the war by negotiation before the amendment passed, some congressmen, who saw it as a punitive measure against the traitorous South, would withhold their “yea” when the vote came. Should the bloody war continue a little longer if that is the cost of ending slavery?
The language of the era and the appearance of things are well reproduced as Lincoln travels along the muddy streets of Washington in an open carriage with a cavalry escort. The supporting cast is superb, especially Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, a fraught and troubled woman nonetheless capable of caustic jabs at Thaddeus Stevens, whom she found, with good reason, insufferable. Many of Kushner’s conversational scenes could have originated in theater, yet Spielberg makes them cinematic with a steady pace, dramatic pauses, stunning visuals and sentimentality measured by the spoon, not the bucket. The Lincoln of Lincoln is a great soul, but not a perfect man; he threatens to clamp his wife into a madhouse and has a tyrannical streak. “I am the president of the United States and I am cloaked in incredible power,” he declares, foretelling the ascent of his office’s authority that began with his fight to preserve the Union.n
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