It must be annoying to be an actor and have a film released the same year as Daniel Day-Lewis. Astonishing in My Left Foot. Compelling in Last Of The Mohicans. Terrifying in Gangs Of New York. Mesmeric in There Will Be Blood. After watching his portrayal of Lincoln, it is hard to deny that he is the greatest screen actor we’ve ever seen.
Day-Lewis initially turned down the role of Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg’s project, feeling he couldn’t do justice to America’s most significant, and arguably greatest President. Fortunately, he changed his mind.
Originally planned as a biopic, Spielberg’s Lincoln, 10 years in gestation, now focuses on the final four months of the great man’s life.
The Civil War is almost won, the Southern Confederate States all but beaten. Beloved, respected, and voted in for a second term by a weighty margin, "Honest Abe" wants to spend his political capital on getting the 13th Amendment to ban slavery passed in the House Of Representatives. It is a battle for the very soul of the nation.
The immorality of slavery gnaws at Lincoln’s conscience, as he wrestles with his moral duty to end the practice, while wanting a swift conclusion to the Civil War. Will passing the amendment affect The South’s surrender? How many more will die in a war that his actions may extend?
His cabinet believes ending the war should be his priority, but Lincoln refuses to accept a negotiated peace that will allow slavery to continue within parts of the Union. Thus begin the machinations that will deliver the President the necessary votes while not threatening the capitulation of The South.
And it’s riveting.
Lincoln has been dismissed by some as merely ‘people in rooms talking’. That may be true, but what people. And what talking.
David Strathairn’s Secretary Of State William Seward is Lincoln’s loyal confidant, both supporter and sounding board, reminding his President that while "the People" may abhor slavery, many fear abolishment will inevitably lead to equality. Which for most is unacceptable.
Tommy Lee Jones is magnetic as the volatile Thaddeus Stevens, the influential Republican and strident believer in black equality, not just before the law, but before God. Will he, can he, temper his views and speeches to help get the amendment passed?
James Spader excels as the leader of a group of lobbyists that includes Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, tasked by Lincoln to bribe lame duck Democrats with federal jobs to help win votes, providing much of the film's levity.
The exceptional Sally Field plays Lincoln’s wife Mary, still wracked with pain two years after the death of their son Willie from typhoid. It’s her potent, passionate exchanges with her husband that provide the insight to Lincoln’s emotional state, a man under immense pressure, struggling to bury this pain deep within.
But this is utterly, completely Day-Lewis’ film. He is simply scintillating as Lincoln - a formidable intellect, driven by a profound moral purpose. A self-effacing, yet hugely inspiring leader possessed with wit, warmth and an urbane sensitivity, with the steel of belief at his core.
This gentle civility, beautifully judged, is a very different character than the ones Day-Lewis has chosen in recent years. It’s a certainty for the Oscar.
Surrounded by lesser actors, as with Gangs Of New York, Day-Lewis can overpower a film. But here, with a heavyweight cast on their very best form, it merely pushes him to greater heights.
Spielberg’s drama deals with arguably the most important four months in America’s history and it is a magnificent achievement. Lincoln deserves every accolade it receives.