When Lincoln was initially announced, Liam Neeson was signed up to take on the challenge of bringing to life the 16th President of the United States. As someone who holds a great deal of admiration for Neeson, I was intrigued, not the least because it would’ve been one of his more showy roles in a long time. Of course, we all know what happened, Neeson, having lost his wife by the time the film went to floors, opted out of the project saying he was a little too old for the part, and Daniel Day-Lewis was roped in and what was already a pretty high-profile production was lifted significantly higher. In preparation for the role, Day-Lewis apparently exhausted all his time in research and is rumored to have asked those on the set to address him as Mr. President. All this is part of the norm for him and his intense method acting ways, but bringing to life a man so adored in the United States was still no mean feat.
Yesterday, I walked into the theater to see my first Daniel Day-Lewis film on the big-screen in the hope that he would live up to all his hype. I walked out, speechless! There are films where the actors are perfunctory; you can switch them with any other actor and nothing will change. Then, there are films where the actors are a necessity, and they deliver performances that enhance the viewing experience. And finally, there are films where the actors are literally the showpiece, as in the film would not have come into existence without their mere presence. Lincoln firmly places itself into the latter category. This being the first film of his I am seeing, on the big-screen or otherwise, I found myself in Day-Lewis’ thrall. Never before have I seen a performance so meticulous in its attention to detail. (There are few exceptions, however.) Spielberg paints a multifaceted picture of Abraham Lincoln, the person and the President, and the only person who can present it to us is Day-Lewis.
The twinkle in his eyes as he outlines his plan (to convince the final Democrat House members) to the Republican lobbyists and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) would’ve been enough to convince us of Lincoln’s skills as a master politician. But as if that wasn’t enough, notice how quietly, yet forcefully, he persuades Congressman George Yeaman (Michael Stuhlbarg), initially opposed to the Amendment, and forces him to the change his mind on the day of the vote. The playfulness when he is around his youngest son, Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath); the pain in his eyes after an argument with his second son, Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), over his plans to enlist; the emotional burden of having to pity his wife’s (Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln) condition while she constantly wears his patience thin; all give us a sense of the Lincoln who never ignored his family even when battling demons on multiple fronts. Finally, Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States; Day-Lewis’ monologue towards the end when the stakes get higher just days before the vote is simply riveting. When he finally rounds off with the rousing, “I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.”, you realize are no longer watching Daniel Day-Lewis, you are in the presence of the man who changed the course of American history.
Naturally, the other actors are left in his wake. Sally Field’s performance as the First Lady comes across as a bit too over-the-top, and as a result, the emotional impact of some of her scenes is diluted. David Straithairn’s William Seward is the textbook example of how to cede the screen to the star and yet make your presence felt when truly needed, as demonstrated in the scene where he fumes at one of the President’s decisions, taken without his consultation. Tommy Lee Jones’ work as the fiery Thaddeus Stevens has gained a lot of momentum in the Oscar race, with good reason as well. It takes a while to get warmed up to his performance - this mirrors the general impression of Thaddeus Stevens - but once that happens, it is hard not to applaud the effectiveness with which he conveys, through simple emotions, what Stevens must be feeling when he represses his personal opinions to convince the House of the 13th Amendment. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Hawkes, Michael Stulhbarg (who is particularly impressive), and a number of other well-known actors round up a supporting cast befitting a production of this magnitude.
There isn’t a whole lot left to say about Lincoln. Spielberg has mastered the art of making this kind of film. And though it never reaches the stratospheric standards of Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or even Munich, his masterpiece from the last decade, it is damn-well close and is much, much superior to 2011’s War Horse. And, yes, it is ever-so-slightly manipulative, especially towards the end, but that is always going to be a given in his films, though in Lincoln, those emotions are well and truly earned. Plus, nobody goes to his films without knowing they’ll have to surrender themselves to John Williams’ emotional cues at one point or the other. Williams’ background score is, as always, exquisite, while Spielberg keeps his usual collaborators handy. Janusz Kaminski’s lenswork is one of the year’s best, and I was constantly amazed by the way he played around with light to create some truly breathtaking close-ups. (If it weren’t for the significantly superior Skyfall, I’d have been willing him on in the race for the Best Cinematography Oscar which is going to end up with Life of Pi anyway.) And the top-notch production design is evident in the painstaking recreation of the period. But, make no mistake about it, Lincoln is definitely a Daniel Day-Lewis tour-de-force.
- Banner image used falls under fair use and taken from Wikipedia