A film about one of the most iconic of Americans, directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, kind of had Academy Award nominations written all over it from its very inception (although, originally, Liam Neeson was due to take on the lead role). Happily, it deserves all twelve of the ones it has received for next month’s ceremony. Day-Lewis plays the man himself of course, sixteenth president of the United States Mr Abraham Lincoln, and the entirety of the film is focused on the last few months of the American Civil War and the politics surrounding Lincoln’s attempt to have the thirteenth amendment (concerned with anti-slavery) officially written into the constitution. As such, there is almost no fighting in the film, instead we are treated to an intricate courtroom drama and character portrayal of the president, and if you are unfamiliar with the exact history of the moment this will certainly put it into an enlightening context.
And who better to play Lincoln than Daniel Day-Lewis. The Red Dragon considers him to be unquestionably the finest actor of his generation, who’s fanatical devotion to method acting each role is legendary, famously living off the land in the forest before shooting ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (92) and flitting between Italian and English with cast and crew on ‘Nine’ (09 – he actually worked as a shoemaker for a while in Italy, for 2002’s ‘Gangs of New York’ Scorsese and DiCaprio reputedly had to track him down and go visit him personally there to persuade him to take part in the film). In an interview Gary Oldman once remarked, upon someone suggesting that everyone has a couple of bad movies, ‘hmm, I’m not aware of Daniel Day-Lewis ever having done any!’.
Here, he completely embodies the character once again with an entirely convincing accent and set of mannerisms to boot, aided by some wonderful cosmetics. He really is something special to watch, and my only, slight, criticism would be that the last ten minutes or so could have perhaps been a little more enigmatic, and it does seem unlikely that Lincoln’s advisers would be quite as surprised as they are by his machinations, but rather they are so in the film in order to make him seem all the more grand. It could be this is consistent with the source material – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln’ published in 2005. In any case, this is Day-Lewis’s fifth best actor nomination at the Academy Awards and if he wins, and he certainly deserves to, then he will make history as the only male actor to ever have won more than two Oscars for lead roles.
Despite the dialogue heavy nature of the movie I enjoyed it just as much, perhaps even more so, the second time around. The cast is enormous, perhaps a little distractingly so as it’s easy to spend time thinking ‘hmm, what is that actor’s name again…’ but they unanimously do a great job. In particular Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a combative, long time proponent of slavery abolition, and Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln, both of whom are up for awards themselves, and also Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie playing the Democratic opposition. The set design looks rich and authentic, and is aided by Spielberg’s decision to film a lot of scenes with bright light streaming in from the exterior, much like Ridley Scott did with ‘Blade Runner’ (82), which helps to give everything the sense of a sort of schoolboy nostalgia, something that feels well suited for one of the most iconic and oft mentioned personages, not to mention lasting legacies, of the nineteenth century.
Fascinating and well made, this is one of Spielberg’s finest.
For some insightful primary source material, take a look at The Writings of Abraham Lincoln.