Daniel Day-Lewis stands at the centre of this reverent, kind look at the 16th President of the United States, who emancipated the slaves during the Civil War, conquered the south and oversaw the beginning of reunification. Lincoln was at the centre of one of the most important period in American History and Spielberg is clearly in awe of him and his accomplishments.
Day Lewis says Lincoln is the only character he played that he loves. He spent a year preparing to play the man, giving him a high-pitched thin voice, a lively sense of humour and an ordinary humanity. Heroic he was but Day Lewis doesn’t play him as a hero, letting his intellect and humility carry him through. Lincoln was born in poverty and educated himself. As we see him here, his grammar is full of holes but his sophisticated and progressive ideals are anything but. He shuffles and leans forward when he walks, skinny as a rail. This man inspired millions and continues to do so today.
Spielberg’s labour of love is a rich portrait although limited to Lincoln’s life circa 1860 – to the evening of his assassination in 1865, the years of his passionate dedication to abolishing slavery.
Day-Lewis the master of transformation, proves once again that he is the most gifted actor in the movies. From Lincoln to Daniel Plainview, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, John Proctor, to Christy Brown, Gerry Conlin and Cecil Vyse, Day-Lewis is a freak, a phenomenon who sinks himself deep into a character, a job that he takes extremely seriously. He’s retired a few times, only to emerge to assume a meaty character, like playing Abraham Lincoln for Steven Spielberg. Day-Lewis surprises us yet again with his reedy subject, thin of voice and physique, a tiny man who held the future of the US in his hands.
Spielberg excels in films of warfare and politics, mixing these hard subjects with the natural realism of his characters. The film is flawless, just wordy enough, just intellectual enough, informative and yet vastly entertaining. History isn’t dry as Spielberg sees it, and neither is the fight for the Thirteenth Amendment, carried out in senate rooms and over tables, through conversation and confrontation. It about the birth of a new world and that’s always exciting.
Sally Field stands out in one of her finest turns in front of the camera. She plays Mary Todd, Lincoln’s wife, with a tragic hint of the coming madness that overtook her, the strong political wife and partner undone by history, the death of her son and constant unmanageable stress and worry. Field tears her heart out for us.
Spielberg’s cast is rich with talent – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Hawkes, James Spader, David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, David Oyelowo, and Jared Harris – all significant talents, led by the astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis. This is one of a handful of great films to see this year. It reminds us how far civilization has come.