November 19, 2012

Daniel Day-Lewis Shines in "Lincoln"

 

You would think that there would eventually come a time when Daniel Day-Lewis simply couldn't do it anymore. 

But, it doesn't happen. Oh sure, intellectually you may start off a film thinking to yourself, "That's Daniel Day-Lewis," but it's not long before your intellect gets sideswiped and once again Daniel Day-Lewis has immersed you in a character in a way that few actors can.

After having watched Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's Lincoln, I'll confess that I can't imagine anyone else playing the part. Day-Lewis doesn't so much embody the Abraham Lincoln that we've always known and loved, as he paints what may very well be the truest and most complete portrait of Lincoln ever captured on the big screen.

Lofty praise? Indeed. It's warranted.

Despite the fact that Spielberg is able, for the most part, to manage his seemingly genetic tendencies towards over-emoting, it's Spielberg himself who really keeps Lincoln from becoming the masterpiece that Daniel Day-Lewis deserves it to be. While Daniel Day-Lewis is portraying Lincoln at his most humble, humane and politically astute, Steven Spielberg spends far too much time waxing eloquently with overly precious camera shots, along with a cloying and intrusive original score from John Williams that spends too much time trying to dictate the film's mood.

But when it's just Daniel Day-Lewis front and center Lincoln is simply extraordinary.

Lincoln is not a biopic in the traditional sense. The film focuses on the final few months of Lincoln's life, a final few months in which the 13th Amendment was passed, the Confederacy surrendered and, of course, his life ended in an act of violence that couldn't completely stave off what Lincoln had already firmly planted.

The problem with Lincoln, though it doesn't come close to actually sabotaging the film, is that Daniel Day-Lewis is so good in the film that virtually everything and everyone else, with the possible exception of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, pales in comparison. There's hardly a scene without Day-Lewis that actually works, while even some of those scenes with the actor feel inadequately developed by a Tony Kushner script filled to the brim with Lincoln trivia and tidbits. Rather than getting sound-byte insights into Lincoln's psyche' over his lack of familiarity with blacks or a wholly unsatisfying portrait of his youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), I'd have much more appreciated more attention given to Lincoln's elder son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) or even his obviously strained relationship with Mary Todd (Sally Field).

If it sounds like I'm about to give a scathing review to Lincoln or that I'm somehow down on Steven Spielberg, I can assure you that nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I'd dare say it's the best film on Lincoln that I've ever seen, though I'd also be hard pressed to name more than a couple that I have seen.

I can assure you that it far surpasses Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

The film kicks off with a battle sequence, though Civil War buffs should likely know that this is about as good as it gets in terms of actual war sequences. The scene also features what is easily one of the film's most awkward scenes, Lincoln conversing with some black soldiers who aren't quite sure what to make of this president. While the scene's noble intentions are obvious, the scene plays out as intentional and pretentious.

Fortunately, things pick up quickly.

Lincoln has already freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, though I loved that Kushner's script gave us the politics behind the proclamation. Lincoln is now debating whether to try to push the 13th Amendment through a reluctant House of Representatives or to wait until the newly elected and far more Republican-friendly Representatives are in office.

Other than Day-Lewis, the only major player who fares well here is Tommy Lee Jones as radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who isn't exactly thrilled with the 13th Amendment because he wants the South to pay reparations to the slaves. Jones is one cantankerous legislator here, hellbent to the point of unpredictability and so unstable that he could be a liability for Lincoln.

Much has been made about the fact that Sally Field fought tooth-and-nail to keep this role when Daniel Day-Lewis replaced the rumored Liam Neeson. While I wasn't particularly bothered by the ten year age difference between Field and Day-Lewis, I was troubled by Field's histrionic portrayal of the rough edges of Mary Todd's obvious signs of mental illness. Field, apparently leaving behind the subtlety from her Sybil days, portrays Mary Todd with such voracious mood swings that one can't help but wonder if Lincoln arranged his own death just to get away from her.

As Robert Todd, Lincoln's eldest son who longs to serve in the war, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is completely wasted. The same is true for the criminally under-utilized John Hawkes, who portrays one of three scallywags that Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) recruits to do a little "under the table" bargaining to help push through the amendment. You might actually find yourself starting to keep track of the film's well known bit players who seem to come along for a scene or two such as Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stevens, James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton, and Tim Blake Nelson as Richard Schell.

Yikes.

As one would expect from a Spielberg film, authenticity is vital and kudos must be afforded for Janusz Kaminski's always luminous camera work, though one could wish that Spielberg could just for one film avoid the lingering photoessay shot that makes you think he's creating a coffee table book rather than a film. Rick Carter's production design is exceptional, while Joanna Johnston's costume design exudes both historical accuracy and serves as the perfect companion to Day-Lewis's performance.

Lincoln is a good film blessed with an extraordinary and surefire Oscar-caliber performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. Avoiding clichés and the larger-than-life Lincoln of history, Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis work together to give us what may very well be the most honest, authentic and brilliantly conceived Abraham Lincoln yet.

Lincoln may not be the masterpiece it seemed destined to be, but it's still an exceptional film about one of history's most beloved and exceptional men.

Originally Published: November 19, 2012
Category: Film
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