Daniel Day-Lewis can be so scary. He seems like a nice enough, soft-spoken guy in rare interviews and awards show appearances, but in movies he's often so intense, so coiled with rage or hurt or lust, that it's frightening. Even his borderline goofy turn in his last film, Rob Marshall's mostly disastrous musical Nine, wasn't without an air of standoffishness. He's a brilliant actor, but by no means a comforting one. We go to Brad Pitt movies to sink into the seat. We go to Daniel Day-Lewis movies to be prickled awake with tension. Which is why it's such a surprising delight to watch him in Lincoln; his performance is as gentle and warm and inviting as the bulk of his other work is jangling and robustly off-putting. Quieting the surrounding swirl of a Steven Spielberg prestige drama with mere gestures and huffs of breath, Day-Lewis does exactingly good character work in a film that, despite its good intentions and stately execution, occasionally borders on thumping, pedantic history lesson.
Day-Lewis' Lincoln is fifty-five and hunched, the top of his tall frame curling down, head stuck out like a buzzard. He speaks in a weary but still forceful crinkle, his tones fatherly and professorial, with a few "ain'ts" and dropped g's friendly remnants of his humble Illinois roots. This Lincoln is at his most endearing and homey when he's telling a story, which screenwriter Tony Kushner has him do often, to both comic and rousing effect. What really makes the performance so captivating, though, is that it isn't fussily mannered and alienating the way, say, Joaquin Phoenix's busy work in The Master was earlier this season. No, this Lincoln fellow, as Day-Lewis portrays him, is decidedly human, a Big Important Historical Figure no doubt, but also a real man who sits quietly reading in the evening, who is affectionate with sons and staffers, who clearly aches with an only barely muffled sadness. That sadness was Lincoln's famous "melancholy," and while it is not an integral part of this movie's story, it informs and strengthens the motivations of Day-Lewis' (and Kushner's) character nonetheless. Slavery, the terrible war, and the recent death of his son Willie have all broken Lincoln's heart, and yet we see also in Day-Lewis' eyes and in his hushed croak, a deeper and less circumstantial despondence. We then watch the president burble and erupt with torrents of speechifying and righteous indignation, as if he is trying to excise this thing, cast it out and away with good and noble deeds. This is, frankly, a remarkable performance, keen and somehow perceptive about a long-dead man, and thoroughly respectable in its unshowiness. It's graced with a sense of humility and reverence, but devoid of any sloppy, sappy hero worship.