It says something about Daniel Day-Lewis’s reputation as an actor that there was nary a peep of protest when he—a UK native!—was cast as Abraham Lincoln. Heck, England had a collective freak out when an American actor’s name was briefly suggested as a possible Harry Potter. Lincoln is only one of the most seminal figures in all of American history. But Day-Lewis is that good. (Or American’s don’t realize he’s from the UK. In which case, well. . . no comment).
There were, however, some objections when folks first heard Lincoln’s voice, in the film’s trailer. It wasn’t the booming, resonant, commanding voice one would expect of such a titan. Instead it was gentle, folksy, slightly high-pitched—a cross between Garrison Keillor, Kermit the Frog, and your favorite history professor. Turns out, according to historians, that voice is accurate. And Daniel Day-Lewis manages to do the impossible—take the man off Mt. Rushmore, as it were, and humanize him, without ever diminishing his historic luster.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln shows the 16th president at a pivotal time in his career: The Civil War is winding down and Lincoln, already the most famous, and beloved man in America—the film starts with awestruck Union soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address to him, by heart—knows the clock is ticking. The Emancipation Proclamation is limited to wartime, so if Lincoln is to fulfill what he believes to be his historical mandate and personal destiny, he must pass the 13th Amendment—abolishing slavery—swiftly. (After the war, people will be less inclined to give up their slaves.) So he makes personal pitches in the chambers of the White House and sends out his surrogates (including a broadly funny James Spader) to bargain with, bully, and cajole undecided congressmen, mostly Democrats. (Lincoln was a Republican, lest we forget.) It’s The West Wing meets Intro to American History.
There are great performances everywhere: David Strathairn as Lincoln’s canny, politically shrewd Secretary of State; Sally Field (who else?) as Mary Todd Lincoln, a little batty after the death of her middle son three years earlier, but smart and loyal to the end; and Tommy Lee Jones, as a Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a passionate abolitionist with an eviscerating wit.
The final vote in the House of Representatives—with an audience of black citizens (mostly the maids and attendants to the various congressmen) hanging on every “aye” and “nay”—feels urgent and dramatic, even though we already know the outcome. Credit a canny screenplay by Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame.
Yes, the film has the occasional whiff of a civics’ lesson, but for the most part, it’s great, visceral theater.
And Day-Lewis’s Lincoln—sometimes stooped and weary, as though the weight of history was almost too much for him to bear; sometimes mischievous and avuncular; but never less than brilliant, stalwart, incorruptible—will now forever be the Lincoln of my mind’s eye. He’s as great as I hoped he’d be.