Daniel Day-Lewis, the four-time Best-Actor Oscar nominee and two-time winner (for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood), has outdone himself in Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln. Earlier big-studio Lincolns of the sound era — Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, and Raymond Massey — played Lincoln. Day-Lewis manages somehow to embody him.
There’s never been a big-screen Lincoln remotely like this one: quick-witted and brooding, calculating and cheerful, logical and humorous, drawn to philosophical ruminating but ready to strike with resolve when he sees the chance, in early 1865, to abolish slavery once and for all by helping to push the resolution for a 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives.
Day-Lewis will get his fifth Oscar nomination, and maybe his third Oscar. Whether he picks up the Oscar or not, he has created a character as richly layered and warmly mysterious as the original Republican hero.
Director Steven Spielberg has said in interviews that he didn’t so much direct his male lead as get out of his way. But he provided Day-Lewis with two accomplished stars — Sally Field as Mary Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens — and both of them bring out Day-Lewis’s crafty best in the most riveting scenes of the film.
The single other person most responsible for Day-Lewis’s performance is screenwriter Tony Kushner, whose script lets this Lincoln debate, meditate, joke, and out-reason everyone else. Lincoln is the work of a dramatist used to writing Pulitzer Prize-winning words, as he did two decades ago for Angels in America.
Hence the film feels a lot like a stage play, or a film from the 1930s or 1940s. Indoor verbal jousting trumps “action” by being the action. But that’s a perfect choice for capturing the historical Lincoln, the champion wordsmith who adored the theater himself.
Some viewers will find the barrage of verbiage excessive, and yearn for Spielberg’s signature visual movie making. They’ll have to get by on the comic relief supplied by Lincoln’s storytelling, and on some beautiful silent moments the president shares with his young son Tad.
When I first heard about Spielberg’s plan for a Lincoln movie, I wondered if the film would highlight the emancipator as much as it did the savior of the union. And I hoped it would not depict Lincoln as such a tender man of charity that his wife Mary would be reduced to the needling, tempestuous thorn in his ever-saintly side.
The stakes were high. A filmmaker of Spielberg’s stature would shape popular attitudes and beliefs about Lincoln the husband and Lincoln the leader for decades to come. (Spoiler alert: what follows reveals plot details on both subjects, the Lincoln marriage and Lincoln the emancipator.)
I needn’t have worried. Spielberg and Kushner, Day-Lewis and Field, have come through with balanced treatments on both scores. Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field re-create the presidential couple’s tangled relationship in all its human fragility. Like every other couple, they converse genially about one thing and another. They debate the meaning of Abraham’s ominous “ship dream.” They plan a “shindig” (public reception). And they experience a joint emotional outburst, with Mary vilifying her husband and Abraham shouting her into submission.
The fight ends without reconciliation. But gradually they realize that their sorrow over 11-year-old Willie’s death in 1862 has taken too huge a toll on their marriage. Riding in their open carriage on the afternoon of April 14, 1865, they agree to try, at long last, to give up being the servants of their grief.
Meanwhile, Lincoln the emancipator gets his most resounding film portrayal ever. The president cajoles Congressmen night and day to line up affirmative votes for the abolition amendment. The film could have left Lincoln there, savoring the end of slavery. Instead, the script goes out of its way to record the liberator’s final move, months later, on the subject of black freedom: publicly endorsing the vote for some African-American men in his last speech on April 11.
It’s early evening on April 14, 1865, and Lincoln is bantering with friends in a White House sitting room about the April 11 speech. They note the criticism of it by Thaddeus Stevens, who was seeking the vote for all, not some, black men.
But House Speaker Schuyler Colfax commends the president for being the first chief executive in American history to endorse even limited black suffrage. With that, a cheerful Lincoln sets off for Ford’s Theatre, telling his friends he has to depart, though he’d rather stay.
The film portrays such a vehement emancipator that one wishes Spielberg had let Lincoln out of the White House to celebrate the new era with the masses of African Americans who gave him and God the credit for freeing them.
Having shown Lincoln in Petersburg, Virginia, with General Grant on April 3, where the President reflects somberly on the military deaths he and Grant have caused, the film could easily have shown us Lincoln walking through Richmond the following day. On that warm afternoon, with smoke still wafting over the city, thousands of slaves celebrated their first day of de facto freedom by walking alongside him, hailing the hero who had magically appeared in their midst.
Even a small glimpse of that scene could have revived our cultural memory of what used to be an iconic Lincoln event: the emancipator striding into the post-war world in the just-fallen capital of the Confederacy, shoulder to shoulder with the nation’s newly freed men and women.
The film does show Grant and Lee silently doffing their hats to one another after the surrender at Appomattox on April 9. The Richmond moment could have set the stage for it: on April 4, as journalist Charles Coffin reported, Lincoln took off his hat and bowed silently to an elderly black man who had removed his own at the president’s approach. Coffin summed up the majesty of that moment, calling the president’s bow “a death-shock to chivalry, and a mortal wound to caste.”