If there was any doubt regarding Daniel Day-Lewis’ status as the best actor alive, Lincoln erases it. Almost completely unrecognizable from his equally monumental roles in There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis commands the screen from the opening frame, delivering a performance that will likely earn him his third Oscar. The movie itself is merely above average, but Day-Lewis is absolutely phenomenal.
It’s been three years since Day-Lewis last appeared on screen in Nine, and during his downtime, he seems to have studied enough Civil War history to earn a Ph.D. Not only does he look exactly like Lincoln, he also sounds exactly as you’d expect Lincoln to sound (he masters a high-pitched rural Illinois twang that no one seems to have even attempted in a movie before), and moves just as you’d expect Lincoln to move (shoulders slumped over, as if the weight of the Civil War had taken a tremendous psychic toll). By now, it’s a given that Day-Lewis will come up with a new appearance, voice, and set of mannerisms for each new role. But even with this expectation in mind, Day-Lewis’ performance is completely blindsiding.
There’s a movie connected to the performance, and it’s a pretty good one. The plot focuses on the passing of the 13th amendment (the one that officially abolished slavery), and Tony Kushner’s screenplay displays the same sort of obsessiveness with the legislative process that Zodiac displayed with police investigations. For the first hour or so, this can be a little rough going. As it turns out, watching old men talk about passing a bill simply isn’t all that interesting. But after awhile, the human drama starts to kick in, and the film becomes fairly riveting. Especially engrossing is the subplot involving Thaddeus Stevens (brilliantly played by Tommy Lee Jones), who’s opposition to slavery is so staunch that he risks alienating the moderates in the Republican party. A scene in which Lincoln and Stevens debate the necessity of compromise (Lincoln recognizes that Stevens is right on the issue, but also recognizes that his position is not politically viable) is an instant classic—mostly because it puts two acting titans in the same room, but also because Lincoln’s points on the issue resonate particularly strongly in today’s political environment.
For the most part, Spielberg manages to avoid all the signature touches that have made him famous. On the one hand, this is a good thing. At his most Spielbergian, Spielberg can be kind of insufferable. (Case in point: the overly sentimental faux epic Amistad). On the other hand, when Spielberg manages to put the proper balance on his urge to go big and sentimental, the results can be breathtaking. (Case in point: Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan).
With Lincoln, Spielberg seems to have completely eradicated his urge to go big and sentimental. Whereas Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan had the scope and sweep of a David Lean film, Lincoln is practically a chamber drama. Except for a few shots in which Lincoln examines the aftermath of a battlefield, the movie is set almost entirely indoors, and most of the scenes set indoors involve old men in wigs talking to each other. (The film reportedly cost $50 million, but it looks like it was filmed for half that). And except for a few stirring scenes at the end, the movie makes little attempt at playing on the emotions. Critics love to bash Spielberg for his grand gestures, but perhaps a few grand gestures are in order. Without them, Lincoln feels like it could have been directed by anybody. As a result, a film which theoretically had the potential to reach the same heights as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan falls a few degrees short.