Anthony Kirby stands by Lincoln as part of our Oscar 2013 Best Film countdown…
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a modulated, textured, deeply felt performance as the 16th President of the United States. Focusing on the last four months of the martyred president’s life the film shows a man old before his time, yet deeply conscious that he has made a pact with the indentured slaves of his country, fought a war on their behalf, and as yet has failed to get the Constitutional Amendment freeing them into law.
The President has a good, yet adversarial, marriage to Mary Todd (Sally Field). Unfortunately. Mrs Lincoln is in depression. ‘I mourn the loss of our son too, Mother’ says Lincoln at one point. ‘However, we must go on and continue our lives.’ Lincoln derives comfort from the time he spends reading to his youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath). Yet he is ultimately alone.
In contrast to Young Mr. Lincoln and earlier epics, the film presents the President ‘warts and all’.
Director Speilberg and writer Kushner attempt to show the events of January through April 1865 as emblematic of the man. We see Lincoln’s humanity, determination, and resolve in those supremely trying months. We can register the imprint of the ordeal through Day-Lewis’s portrayal. (Through the clever use of makeup the actor resembles the Lincoln of Matthew Brady’s Civil War portraits).
However, Day Lewis is far too skilled an actor to simply give the viewer a stooped, troubled Lincoln and leave it at that. He uses a high, wavering mid-western voice (apparently authentic) as a subtle wheedling instrument. Lincoln’s Shakespeare-quoting country lawyer act , involving the spinning of country yarns, is just a rouse. He is capable of rage, but he parcels it out opportunely when no other option will work.
Lincoln’s hopes for passage of the amendment rely on the support of Republican Party Founder Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrooke), the only person who can ensure that all members of the conservative faction of the party will back the legislation. However, with Union victory in the War seeming likely, Blair is keen to end hostilities as quickly as possible. In return for his support Blair insists that Lincoln immediately allow him to engage the Confederates in peace negotiations. Lincoln reluctantly agrees to Blair’s mission. This slows matters down by almost a week.
Knowing that his legislation won’t pass without the support of some disaffected Democrats, Lincoln is not above using strategies bordering on the devious to get his amendment through. In one very strong scene he urges his Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strthairn) to use the promise of positions in his new administration to procure Democratic votes. The fore-mentioned deputies are ‘lame duck’ politicians. They will be out of work once the new congress meets. Lincoln feels they have nothing to lose and much to gain by voting their consciences.
High ranking members of the Confederate Administration are ready to meet Lincoln to discuss peace terms. He instructs that they be kept out of Washington as the amendment approaches a vote on the House floor. The returned Blair and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) a charismatic abolitionist Republican husband the bill through Congress . Finally after incendiary debate the Amendment passes by just two votes.
Lincoln’s complicated views on slavery and the emancipation of blacks are sanitised for public consumption. However , one scene near the end of the film highlights his personal position. Asked by his wife’s maid ,Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Rubin) whether he accepts blacks as equals, he vacillates by saying that he does not know her or her people, but that since they are ‘bare forked animals’ (a reference to Shakespeare ) he will get used to them. This tarnish on his reputation de-sanctifies him.
Given the object of the film there is only one war sequence. It is of the President visiting a battlefield following a brief meeting with General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris).
Producer Kathleen Kennedy described Day Lewis’s performance as ‘remarkable’. She added, ‘every day you get chills thinking Lincoln is sitting there right in front of you . Daniel is very much deeply invested and immersed throughout the day when he’s in character, but he’s very accessible at the end of the day. He’s given huge scenes with massive amounts of dialogue and he needs to stay in character. It’s a very performance driven film.’
Nominated for twelve Academy Awards including best actor, Lincoln recently won a Golden Globe for Day-Lewis’s mesmerizing performance. Paying tribute to Tony Kushner Day Lewis said, ‘The beauty of your language shows the impoverishment of my own.’ He called Spielberg ‘a gentle and sure-handed master and added . I shall treasure the gift of working with you to the end of my days.