In some ways, the run-up to this year’s Academy Awards shares some similarities with the story that plays out in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln – a biopic that casts Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Unfolding against the backdrop of the Civil War as Lincoln pushes to gain approval for a slavery-ending amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Lincoln portrays the popular President as a leader struggling with the ever-present red tape and legislative process that prevents a quick end to slavery and the war dividing the nation. For both Lincoln and the movie’s audience, the proper outcome of all the political wrangling is obvious, but the film focuses on why such a debate needed to happen and the deft balancing act required of the President to keep the 13th Amendment in motion while juggling a Civil War and his responsibilities at home.
And yes, much like the film’s portrayal of the 13th Amendment’s ratification, the decision to give Day-Lewis the Oscar will inevitably involve lots of debate and a resolution that most people expected from the start.
Of course, that’s not to say that Day-Lewis’ performance is the only thing Lincoln has going for it. The film surrounds its lead with a fantastic cast of actors who provide pitch-perfect performances in nearly every role, and the project itself serves as yet another affirmation of Spielberg’s impressive talents behind the camera. Even so, there’s little doubt that Day-Lewis’ performance is the focal point, the foundation, and the driving force behind Lincoln.
It’s worth noting early on that Lincoln is not a traditional biopic, as it doesn’t give us the standard birth-to-death narrative, and instead covers a relatively short period of time in Lincoln’s life. That period of time, however, is a carefully chosen window that offers tremendous insight into what sort of man he was and why history holds him in such high regard.
IT’S ALL IN THE HISTORY
Clearly a passion project for Spielberg, Lincoln is a film made by and for history buffs – something that works to both its benefit and detriment at various times. Much like he’s done with so many other films, Spielberg has a knack for finding the most compelling character arcs history has to offer and making the theater a classroom of sorts. The lesson in American history taught by Lincoln isn’t as subtle as the one found in Saving Private Ryan, but the movie does a nice job of staying in mainstream territory rather than veering into hardcore historical-drama turf.
Still, Spielberg’s in-depth knowledge of the subject matter occasionally leads to some glossing-over of character relationships and the political architecture of the time, which could be confusing to some audiences. With the shifting alliances between parties and politicians playing a major role in the film’s drama, certain moments lose their punch if you don’t have a firm grasp on the hierarchy of key players in American history or the balance of power at the time.
While Spielberg does a fantastic job of giving the film’s impressive cast room to do what they do best, even great performances by Tommy Lee Jones (as radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), and James Spader (Democratic operative W.N. Bilbo) never quite reach the bar set by Day-Lewis in the title role. Field in particular does a magnificent job of diving into her character and giving the audience as many layers as it can handle, but even during some of her finest moments, your eyes are drawn to Day-Lewis, who’s often seen in the background casting Lincoln’s eyes toward the woman he loves and filling each scene with more emotion than any monologue could ever provide.
In fact, it’s those subtle elements of Day-Lewis performance in Lincoln that lift the movie to the next tier and really make the film feel less like a history lesson and more like a story about a very real man with very real emotions. There’s no need to tell the audience that Lincoln is carrying the weight of the war and his presidency on his shoulders, as Day-Lewis conveys that burden every time he wearily drags himself up – shoulders-first, at times – and painstakingly moves from one room of the White House to the next. His interpretation of Lincoln spends much of the film in a state of quiet, contemplative silence with his eyes closed, only to suddenly offer up a platitude of some sort or, in rare occasions, deliver a thundering analysis to his advisors of how things need to proceed. With Day-Lewis’ version of Lincoln, every word is planned and every movement is tortuously deliberate.
Lincoln arrives in theaters with all of the hype one would expect from a film with this sort of high-profile pedigree, and it’s to the credit of Spielberg and his cast that it manages not to just match expectations but exceed them. It’s easy to go on and on about Day Lewis and his performance (which will likely earn him another Oscar for his mantle), but in the end it’s the success of all the supporting elements that make Lincoln a triumph for both its lead actor and the film as a whole. That Day-Lewis can give such a noticeably magnificent performance despite the great work of Jones, Field, and so many others just might be the best reason to give him the Oscar in February.
Or then again, we could just give it to him now.