Seriously, just start engraving Daniel Day-Lewis’ name on the Best Actor statuette right now. I’m sure there are other great performances out there this season (I think Denzel is a strong contender for Flight), but I don’t think they can top Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln. Beyond the amazing physical transformation, the actor has absorbed Lincoln from the inside out – his Lincoln is towering yet scraggily down-to-earth, humane but not anachronistically bleeding-heart; a man with a keen eye on history yet equally aware of on-the-ground exigencies. For all this, there’s no showboating in Day-Lewis’ performance. He’s not an actor pantomiming a great historical figure; he seems to simply become the man himself.
Right from the start, the film tries to separate the man from the legend. While visiting troops, Lincoln is uncomfortable, maybe even impatient, when two awed young soldiers start quoting his Gettysburg Address back to him. He appears more interested in the details of their lives than in having them reflect his public persona back to him. Then we see him lounging in an armchair in his bedroom, feet in slippers. Later, he’s sprawled on the floor next to his young son, Tad. There’s something so human and vulnerable about the way Tad climbs onto his father’s back and the shot of Lincoln’s slippers on the floor, forgotten as he carries his son to bed.
I’m glad Lincoln isn’t a standard biopic – they can be so rote and by-the numbers. This film’s approach is much more interesting – narrow in scope, deep in detail. The details it’s chiefly concerned with are the sometimes dirty political machinations involved in achieving a lofty goal. The down-in-the-mud, fairly un-heroic battle sequence at the beginning of the film parallels the down-and-dirty politicking that Lincoln and his surrogates engage in to ensure passage of the 13th amendment. James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes play a comedic trio of proto-lobbyists, doling out patronage to secure the necessary votes.
Based on this film and The Amazing but Totally Unnecessary Spiderman, I feel like Sally Field is getting harder to watch as time goes by. The exposed-nerve quality that’s always made her so compelling is getting amplified, so that it’s almost too much to take. (I wonder if Claire Danes is going to progress that way, too.) Perhaps Field was right on target with her depiction of Mary’s almost florid grief and sadness, but it felt out of balance with the rest of the film. I did like the cut from her anguish just before the inaugural reception to her smiling mask of hospitality in the receiving line. The abrupt transition underscored how much pain she was always hiding behind that mask.
One narrative device at the end of the film made me uncomfortable. I hesitate to include a spoiler alert because it reinforces the film’s gimmick; I’ll just say that it involves Tommy Lee Jones’ character. The movie treats the fact that Thaddeus Stevens has a relationship with a black woman, his housekeeper, as a sort of punchline to a joke he puts over on everyone else, the secret that explains his abolitionist zeal. So it only makes sense for a white man to care about racial equality as much as he does because he’s sleeping with a black woman? I found that suggestion insulting, and I wish the film had presented that biographical information more matter-of-factly and less like a surprise twist.
With the exception of that false note, I enjoyed Lincoln. It breathes life into legal and political minutiae (Lincoln could’ve been teaching a constitutional law class when he discusses the legal maneuvering required for the Emancipation Proclamation); frames the legal battle over slavery in a way that echoes future civil rights struggles; and offers a very human portrait of a man, husband, and father who also happens to be one of the greatest figures in American history.