Fittingly premiering in Lithuania the weekend of the Oscars, Lincoln certainly is a masterclass of fine acting. Daniel Day-Lewis, surprising no-one, dives wholeheartedly into the role of the United States’ 16th president, and without a doubt, will dominate in the world’s imaginations, as the preeminent portrayal of the man. The film does not attempt to cover the life of President Lincoln exhaustively, retelling instead the last few months of his life, focusing on the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which freed, once and for all, the slaves in America.
The characterization seems instantly familiar to any student of history, or anyone that has seen a picture or read a speech of Abraham Lincoln. Uncommonly tall at 193 cm, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the man as almost uncomfortable with his height, his long limbs swaying as he walks, somewhat hunched over to, it seems, compensate for his being the tallest man in the room at almost all occasions. His voice, somewhat high, certainly not one we’d expect of such a large figure, still feels instantly right. Perhaps it is because Day-Lewis does not choose to portray Lincoln as a caricature, an expected imitation, but instead inhabits the role completely, and it seems effortlessly, without succumbing to over-the-top antics, that it feels completely genuine. As of this time, the Oscar winners have not yet been announced, but they may well have been at the time of your reading this, and if I am incorrect that Day-Lewis will take away the Oscar for Best Actor, please post your suggestions for my punishment below.
The other actors, while possessing neither the screen-time, nor the audience’s attention as the titular character does, are all well above average. Indeed, many of the side-characters are very memorable. The most important of which is Sally Field, in the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady. She, plagued, as Lincoln himself may have actually been, with depression, nevertheless serves as a very strong figure. The president no doubt relied on her a great deal, as is shown in the early scene where he tells her of a dream he had; one where the loneliness of what he feels to be his mission is revealed. Ms. Field surrenders herself to the character completely, and in her genuine concern for her family’s wellbeing she is often the personification of the emotional stakes the film presents.
The most enjoyable performance by a supporting actor is, however, Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent abolitionist, viewed as radical by most for his belief in the absolute equality of the races. His great wit and sarcasm, not to mention extraordinarily modern views, make for a character that elicits laughter with almost each line, despite voicing very serious concerns at the same time. Tommy Lee Jones’ smile, slight and rare as it traditionally is, makes several appearances in Lincoln, and we realize that the actor does not have to be insufferably grumpy, he is simply commonly typecast as such. It is due to this completely uncharacteristically uplifting and optimistic performance that he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor – and were it not for Robert De Niro’s presence on the ballot, he would be a sure winner.
Steven Spielberg, as usual, does not make his presence behind the camera overly known. The director here is not the focus, the film does not require bold stylistic choices – merely a steady, seasoned hand to keep the show together, which the veteran filmmaker certainly possesses. For letting the characters in the film breathe and not succumbing to the desire to over-stylize, Spielberg is certainly to be commended, and while he would not be my first choice, is a likely recipient of the Oscar for Best Director.
The wonderful part of this story is that it does not require historical inaccuracy or fabrication to hold interest. While certain exaggeration may be inevitable, it is precisely the big, seemingly over-dramatic moments, reveals, and absolute moral stances that are corroborated by historical sources, because they were memorable at that time, as they are now. Here is a bigger-than-life story that is so effortlessly, which is why it is so convincing, and such a pleasure to watch.