Daniel Day-Lewis is selective with his Hollywood roles — so much so that he turned down repeated offers to play Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” series. But when he accepts a leading role, as he did with Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” his commanding performances push the envelope while providing more than enough strength and energy to fuel a movie.
Director Steven Spielberg bases “Lincoln” off of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.” The film chronicles the last months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life. After four years of the bloody Civil War, Lincoln (Day-Lewis) strives to complete one of his most important accomplishments in office: abolishing slavery through the ratification of the 13th Amendment. With the help of practical-minded Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln and his supporters attempt to persuade and bribe members of the House of Representatives to contribute the precious few votes needed for the amendment to pass. Yet Lincoln struggles not just against his opponents but against his allies as well, especially his supportive yet exhausted wife, Mary (Sally Field), and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), whose passion for abolition threatens to expand the rift between the pro- and anti-slavery parties.
Day-Lewis holds the status of a Hollywood legend because of the extremes he goes to in method acting, such as living off the land for six months in preparation for his role in “The Last of the Mohicans.” This passionate dedication to his craft has resulted in fiery performances, including the raging Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” and the dark Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood.” In “Lincoln,” Day-Lewis scores again, brilliantly depicting the warm smile, careful speech and calculating stare of the giant president. He especially delves into the character when he executes one of Lincoln’s charming anecdotes or attempts to share his strong belief in the elimination of slavery with his Cabinet. It is not just the delivery of his lines but also Day-Lewis’ performance when Lincoln listens to others with extreme intensity that helps create the respectable charisma of a well-loved president.
Public appearances aside, Day-Lewis also fuses Lincoln’s confidence in public with his personal turmoil. Day-Lewis’ wrinkled face and eyes bright with experience convince the audience that beneath the friendly exterior sits a man who has carried heavy burdens and made difficult choices for those around him.
While Day-Lewis steals the show as Lincoln, the supporting cast is not only extensive but also solid. Jones crafts one of his most exciting and peppy performances in years as the fast-talking and relentless Thaddeus Stevens, and Field brings a comparable attitude to the sweet but harried Mary. Strathairn’s frankness as Seward proves complementary to Day-Lewis. A dynamic exists between the Sancho Panza-esque Seward and the idealistic but not necessarily quixotic Lincoln.
“Lincoln’s” pacing and storyline hold steady though at times typical construction. The script bounces from playful to somber scenes, much like Spielberg’s past movies such as “E.T.” An extensive amount of comic relief involves a trio of professional bribers and their dealings with various senators. There is also a predictable but still humorous bit about the extensive loading time of flintlock pistols.
The movie also runs storylines involving Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) feeling guilty for not enlisting in a war that so many others around him suffer and die for. Robert’s storyline is engaging but feels lukewarm because of Spielberg’s conventional style and the foreknowledge of this plot based in American history.
“Lincoln” fuses historical biography with elements of a family drama. While the entire cast deserves acclamation, Day-Lewis mesmerizes and awes with his powerful performance as a beloved president.
Overall rating: 3 ½ stars
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as ‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”