Film review: Lincoln

Steven Spielberg has done a great service to history with his latest masterpiece, Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis is Lincoln
Ewan Watt
On 21 November 2012 13:17

In January, Daniel Day-Lewis will win his third ‘Best Actor’ Academy Award for his role as President Abraham Lincoln. Many will cite the casting of Hollywood’s notorious method actor as yet another stroke of genius by director Steven Spielberg, but there was only ever one option. Only an actor who immerses himself in his role as intensely as Day-Lewis was ever fit to play the 16th President of the United States.

Films about historical figures such as Lincoln often fall short. In recent years we have seen films with exceptional story-lines, lead actors, and directors fail to produce the classic that the source material suggested. There is, of course, a challenge of meeting expectations, but the historical biography is often overwhelmed by its subject, and falls into the trap of trying to yank at the audience's heartstrings for two and a half hours. Clint Eastwood's woeful Invictus is a particularly obvious recent example

Based upon Team of Rivals, the bestselling book that helped redeem the tainted reputation of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Spielberg’s Lincoln lives up to all the hype. While the movie itself ticks all the boxes that you would expect from a Spielberg production, the performance of its lead elevates it to an entirely new level of excellence. For those who have exhausted their DVD players watching the Academy Award-winning There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis has done the impossible and outdone his performance as Daniel Plainview.

The role itself was always going to be a challenge. With Lincoln, history has the tendency to put him on a pedestal and portray him as a Christ-savior sent by providence to rescue the United States from the sickness of slavery and the inevitability of dissolution. Deliberate or not, the movie certainly has the occasional glimpse of light from The Heavens; it’s what we have come to expect.

And yet it also has so much more. In Lincoln we see not just the Great Emancipator, but the war president, the calculating politician, the suspender of habeas corpus, as well as the grieving father and depressive. It makes, dare I say it, the Father Abraham the United States has come to revere almost human.

Far from simply inspiring the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, Spielberg goes to great lengths to demonstrate how Lincoln used raw politicking, promises of political patronage, and, at times, sheer dishonesty to cement his legacy. It’s simply the politics that we know today, proof positive that the political Dark Arts were far from a 20th century invention and played a fundamental role in enlightening, rather than just corrupting, our political system. Lincoln may not have been the second coming, but he certainly possessed a distinct political acumen that up until recently has gone under-reported.

Amidst the civics lesson, made all the more fascinating by the brilliant Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, is the personal portrayal of Lincoln. Day-Lewis captures President Lincoln’s affection for solitude and his use of self-deprecation to cover what was likely a lifetime of melancholy, but certainly four years of constant sorrow and grieving.

This was made all the more painful by the deteriorating mental health – with good reason – of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln played by the exceptional Sally Field. The line from General Ulysses S. Grant towards the film’s conclusion regarding the president’s considerably aged features did not just emanate from the war, but also a story of private tragedy. With every scene the physical and mental exhaustion shows on Day-Lewis’ face.

With Lincoln it seems only appropriate that it has fallen to the greatest actor of his generation to depict a man still so revered in the United States. We know the famous face, frame, and characteristics, but with his life taking place before video footage America has had to resort to anecdotal evidence and comical depictions to get a gauge of the man himself.

Actors and actresses such as George C. Scott in Patton or Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady have delivered award-winning performances that have revived legacies or renewed interest in recently deceased or living icons. Day-Lewis on the other hand, with the pensive Hoosier accent, brings Lincoln to life. In one of the concluding scenes where the president leaves the White House for his ill-fated evening at Ford’s Theatre, it is hard not to feel moved by Day-Lewis’ awkward frame and gangly walk as he strides through the hallway of the White House.

As Lincoln continues to rack up tens of millions of dollars at the box office there will also be a flurry of articles attempting to dissect his presidency, particularly whether, as Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln abused his position and unnecessarily fought a war that could have been averted. There is certainly some truth in the former, less so in the latter. But whereas other directors might have been tempted to avoid addressing such contentious aspects of the Lincoln presidency through fear of being accused of smearing his legacy, Spielberg refuses to do so and as such has done a great service to history.

Luckily Lincoln isn’t yet another nauseating biopic of the flawless Father Abraham, but a humanizing take on the virtues (and flaws) of the father of this more perfect union

Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt

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