The Subtle Eloquence of 'Lincoln'

Daniel Day-Lewis mesmerizes as the Great Emancipator in Steven Spielberg's political portrait.


Befitting its subject, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln opens with one speech and closes with another. The first is the Gettysburg Address, repeated back to the president from memory by a pair of battle-muddied Union soldiers, one white and one black. The latter is the Second Inaugural, shown in a brief flashback following Lincoln's assassination, which occurred little more than a month after the speech was given.

At its core, Lincoln is a film about the arts of suasion—one that encompasses oratory and extortion, conciliation and conspiracy, arms twisted and cheeks turned. It is a film, in short, about politics.

Adapted by Tony Kushner from portions of Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 biography Team of Rivals, the movie portrays Lincoln's deft maneuvering in the early weeks of 1865 as he sought to balance the competing goals of ending the Civil War and achieving passage of the 13th Amendment, which led to the abolition of slavery. Within his own Republican party, the president (Daniel Day-Lewis) delicately balances radicals against conservatives, even as his surrogates cherry-pick Democrats, precious vote by precious vote by nearly-as-precious abstention, with alternating rounds of ingratiation, bullying, and outright bribery.

Though the film starts a bit slowly, with hefty doses of introduction and exposition, it gradually attains velocity, depicting politics not merely as the binary struggle between opposing forces to which we have become all too accustomed (though there are elements of this characterization as well), but as a three-dimensional puzzle to be solved. There are a handful of occasions when Spielberg lays the uplift on a bit thick, John Williams's score swelling like a bladder, but for the most part the movie is lively and full of wit. The deep and varied cast—David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, and many others—depict a compelling universe of political personalities orbiting the president. And if Tommy Lee Jones, playing Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, always comes across rather more as Tommy Lee Jones than as the iconic abolitionist—well, there are worse things.

Lincoln fares less well when it turn its focus to the president's private life, in particular wife Mary's continuing grief over the premature death of their son Willie, and both parents' resistance to the entreaties by their eldest son, Robert, that he be allowed to enlist. The humanizing purpose of these scenes is apparent enough, but here Day-Lewis is let down by his co-stars. As Robert, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is forgettable, his role considerably smaller than his billing might lead one to believe. The casting of Sally Field as Mary is more problematic. Like Jones, she is too recognizably herself; but where the script furnishes the former with countless opportunities to deploy his mordant wit, Field's relatively thankless role offers few compensations for her failure of mimesis. Contemplating history's judgment late in the film, Mary laments to her husband, "All anyone will remember is that I was crazy and I ruined your happiness." Despite the screen time afforded her, the film offers little to enrich or complicate this verdict.

Which brings us, at last, to Day-Lewis. In past great performances—as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, for instance, or Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York—Day-Lewis created figures of such simmering ferocity that they threatened to burn a hole in the screen. Here, by contrast, he wisely opts for understatement, receding gently into his characterization. Lincoln, after all, is already larger than life. The trick lies in bringing him down to a comprehensible size.

In Day-Lewis's hands, the Great Emancipator is alternatingly droll and melancholy, sure of his arguments yet eager to engage with others', part self-taught intellectual and part tricky lawyer. ("It isn't our Southern states that are in rebellion," he explains amiably at one point, "but only the rebels in our Southern states.") Most of all, he is an inveterate aphorist, ever eager to illustrate his points by spinning tales--most of them presumably tall. (Among them, he shares the funniest scatological joke about George Washington I expect ever to hear.)

Day-Lewis's metamorphosis is at times uncanny: His chin underslung beneath its curtain beard, his spare frame slightly stooped, his voice a tad higher than we are accustomed to hearing it, with an accent demonstrably but not excessively Midwestern. The first two films in which I saw Day-Lewis were My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room with a View back in the mid-'80s, and I remember marveling that the same actor could vanish so utterly into roles so very different. Likewise, his performance in Spielberg's film is so persuasive that praise for it almost feels like praise for Lincoln himself. And it's hard to imagine higher praise than that.