In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis moves on from acting to alchemy. The two-time Oscar-winner is hardly prolific (he’s made only ten films since collecting that first Academy Award, for My Left Foot, a film now twenty-three years old), but he seems more and more dedicated to making certain every outing counts. The level of commitment he brings to his performances has the feel of legend about it, which would risk becoming tiresome if the acting wasn’t often purely astounding, tapping into deeper reservoirs of unfathomable talent and craft. Just as his turns as Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and then Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood each seemed to casually but decisively redefine the parameters of what could be achieved in acting, so too does his latest performance offer a head-spinning new peak. As no less iconic a figure as Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis utterly disappears into the role, utilizing facets of the man that are so well-established they’re practically tropes, but somehow avoiding cliches altogether to bring his inner humanity to the fore. This is an United States President with no shortage of depictions over the years, but this portrait is so indelible it seems likely to become the cultural stand-in for Lincoln for generations to come. I’m halfway convinced the contents of my household penny jar is filled with mintings of the Irish actor’s profile.
If an issue can arise with a performance as strong as that given by Day-Lewis, it’s the inability of the other actors, even extremely gifted ones, to measure up. Undoubtedly enticed by the prospect of working with Spielberg on a weighty historical epic, the cast list is ridiculously stocked. Concentrating solely on other Oscar winners and nominees, the film features Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes and Jackie Earle Haley, many of them in fairly brief roles, screen time obviously less of a concern than the reflected prestige of the project. With the exception of Jones, who is the beneficiary of perfect casting as powerhouse abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, almost everyone wilts a little in the scenes with Day-Lewis. That may enhance the imposing nature of the presidency, but it also undercuts, in a dramatic sense, the folksy approachability that is regularly asserted as one of the hallmarks of Lincoln’s appeal to the people.
Maybe the most fascinating thing about the structure of the film is that it is largely concerned with a brief span of Lincoln’s presidency, shortly after his reelection, when he pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution ahead of the completion of the Civil War, convinced it was vitally important to confirm the illegality of slavery within the nation’s most sacred document. Rather than a lengthy (and likely tedious) trudge through Lincoln’s life, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner reveal the man, and hint at the life that shaped him, through studious examination of all of the conflicts, cajoling and convincing that took place around this single piece of legislation. Lincoln presents the fascinating dueling thesis that politics is relentlessly ugly and also incredibly vital. The members of the House of Representatives go at each other with a level of rhetorical vitriol that proves recent laments about unprecedented corrosiveness in political discourse are short on historical perspective, and yet the outcomes change lives, in this case for the necessary better.
For much of the film, Spielberg shows an admirable restraint, concentrating on the mechanics of the political give-and-take and allowing quiet, telling moments to emerge at a blessedly unhurried pace. Yet, he can’t quite totally shed the inclination towards emotional pushiness that has stirred his detractors throughout his long career. Pleasurable as it is to watch strikingly unfussy scenes in which Day-Lewis’s Lincoln raises his conflicted allies to action with firm moral force or amuses himself in a tense situation with a bawdy anecdote, there are also those moments, thankfully rare, when the movie collapses into manipulative malarkey. Whether first found in the script or on Spielberg’s storyboards, there should have been a mutual decision to excise the scene in which a black White House employee feels strangely, sentimentally compelled to watch Lincoln the whole time he makes the long walk out of the building to join his wife at the theater. Its blatant mawkishness is bad enough, but it looks even worse held up against the lean seriousness of the rest of film.
Overall, though, Spielberg has a sure hand, dropping the pomposity that fatally marred last year’s War Horse. It’s as if the director is as enthralled by his lead actor as anyone else. He’s there to capture the transformation he sees before him, and is sure too much visual or tonal manipulation will obscure the towering achievement on the other end of the lens. Day-Lewis’s performance is so strong it’s conceivable it could even alter the approach of a director as strong and seasoned as Spielberg.