By John H. Foote
Watching Steven Spielberg’s melancholy, mesmerizing Lincoln for the first time, you can’t help but be struck by the extraordinary performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States. We hear Lincoln before we see him, speaking in a surprisingly high, reedy voice, instead of the deep, powerful sound one might expect from such an influential orator and leader. But in his typically thorough, extensive research, Day-Lewis found that many sources noted the fact that Lincoln’s voice did not match the legend. Day-Lewis replicated this high-pitched voice, ensuring a factual portrayal, and thus earning his reputation as one of the finest actors in cinema history.
The young soldiers he is speaking with are obviously awe-struck meeting the great man, but Lincoln puts them at ease with his conversation, which is warm and inviting, demonstrating true interest and compassion for these soldiers. As they move off to fight the war, one of them recites Lincoln’s most famous speech, making clear his devotion to the President, his love for the man.
His meager three Oscars for Best Actor belie the unwavering talent and performance of this man. Of course, his trophy shelf may also be light because Day-Lewis works infrequently, and the role and director MUST interest him, or he famously declines offers. He is otherwise content to stay at home with his children and wife Rebecca, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller. They live a sheltered, quiet life, have all the money they need, and are content. But if a project interests Day-Lewis, he has proven himself to be all in.
In the last 30 years, he has collected Academy Awards for My Left Foot (1989), There Will Be Blood (2007), often hailed as the greatest performance in film history, and Lincoln (2012). Further nominations came for In the Name of the Father (1993), Gangs of New York (2002) and Phantom Thread (2017) and two more should have come for The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and John Proctor in The Crucible (1996). Day-Lewis is, in a word, astonishing.
The same quality of craftmanship can be ascribed to director Steven Spielberg, who had long wanted to make a film about Lincoln. As a child, Spielberg visited the massive Lincoln memorial. When he set his eyes on the imposing, massive statue, it began a life-long study of Lincoln culminating in this movie.
When he learned that author Doris Kearns Goodwin was writing a book about Lincoln, Spielberg bought the rights to it unfinished. Goodwin was an award-winning historian of U.S. presidents, and Spielberg knew hers would be the source he would draw upon. The final work, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, was a massive book, far too daunting to cover in a film. Spielberg briefly considered an HBO mini-series as he had with Band of Brothers (2005) and The Pacific (2010), each extraordinary works, but decided he would instead focus on the right screenplay.
When he finished Munich (2005), among his most blistering and misunderstood films which Pulitzer Prize winning Tony Kushner had written for him, Spielberg asked him to take on the screenplay for Lincoln. Little did he know it would take seven years for the writer to complete the job. Liam Neeson was announced as the man to portray Lincoln, but he withdrew when the writing took so long, as he believed he was too old to play the part. Spielberg then approached Day-Lewis and offered the reclusive actor the part. Day-Lewis accepted on one condition: that he have a full year to research the President before a single camera rolled. Spielberg agreed.
Sally Field, who had to lobby hard for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, claims she never met Daniel Day-Lewis until the film’s opening and press tour. “He was always President Lincoln,” she claimed, “and the reverence on the set was such that we referred to him as that.” That however is nothing new when working with Day-Lewis as he insists on being referred to as his character while on set. He spent weeks in a wheelchair, using only his left foot to play Cristy Brown in his Oscar winning performance in My Left Foot; lived off the land and learned how to hunt with dated gear for The Last of the Mohicans; insisted on being locked in a jail cell for In the Name of the Father; and built a log cabin for The Crucible. The man’s dedication to his craft is undeniable.
It was no different this time around. He threw himself into the part, reading, rather consuming, everything he could find on the man. One crew member said, “It was eerie, but the first time I saw Daniel he was NOT Daniel, he was Lincoln. I felt the need to call him Mr. President.”
Kushner and Spielberg decided to focus on Lincoln’s attempts to abolish slavery in Congress, to explore his genius as a politician, and the little-known fact that he used strong-arm tactics to advance his platform. Lincoln knew that if the Civil War ended without the new Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery, he would never get the bill passed, and slavery would remain a way of life in the South. By focusing on this part of Lincoln’s life, Kushner was able to look at him as a leader, but also as a grieving father, with an unstable wife, devastated by the loss of her son. Given to moments of melancholy, now known to be heartbreaking grief, even PTSD (the loss of a child), and feeling the unbearable losses of American lives due to the war, Lincoln was often a deeply sad man. He used his folksy stories and jokes to entertain and put his opponents at ease, hoping they might underestimate him, giving him a distinct advantage to advance his cause. His undeniable genius was knowing what he had to do to push the 13th Amendment through. He used such tactics as shaming senators into voting for his bill, promising coveted positions, whatever it took, within reason.
Spielberg fills the screen with the world of Lincoln during his lifetime, a time when the President could stroll the streets or ride in an open carriage. Lincoln rides on horseback to the South, through battlefields ripe with decaying flesh. The bodies of both sides, dressed in blue and grey, are piled on the blood-soaked fields. He gently but reverently tips his hat in tribute to the fallen as he passes by. Understanding it will fall on his shoulders to unite the nation when General Robert E. Lee finally surrenders, he takes that role most seriously, knowing if he fails, war could erupt again.
Lincoln opened at the New York Film Festival to astonishing reviews, the finest of Spielberg’s career since Schindler’s List (1993). Lincoln became the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Easily the most intelligent film of the year, certainly the most literate work in 20 years. Some complained that the film was too wordy but listen to those words! Listen to what is being said by these men who played such a key role in U.S. history. There are times I felt transported back in time, within the walls of these historic buildings, hearing the very conversations that altered the course of the Nation.
Lincoln was indeed a brilliant, shrewd man who knew how to get the 13th Amendment through Congress. Deals were struck, promises made. He would essentially act against his very nature, using the Office of the President like a credit card, many deals to be cashed in later. His enemies knew they were being bought, how could they not? While they likely convinced themselves they were doing the right thing, they were also seeking personal gain for their vote.
Kushner’s superb screenplay moves in and out of Lincoln’s life, allowing us to glimpse the extraordinary pressure piled on him, weighing him down with a sadness no one ever truly understood. Beyond being President at a time his country was so violently divided, his own grief over losing a child threatened to overwhelm him and his wife. In Congress, we watch as the votes increase to abolish slavery and those in the South begin to realize they might lose their right to own other human beings. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens encapsulates the disgust felt by many in the room at the thought of slavery, and smiles with relief as each vote is passed in favour of the bill. We learn at the end of the movie that Stevens has personal reasons for passing the bill: his partner in life (though not his wife because the law forbids it) is black.
Sadly but inevitably, the film ends with Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s Theatre. I always thought that famous quote, “Now he belongs to the ages” got it wrong. He was such an intelligent man, plain spoken, fair, brutally honest but more than capable of playing the political game against men who had done it their entire lives. Having accomplished such greatness in his life, had he not always belong to the ages?
Day-Lewis is nothing short of astonishing as Lincoln. Beyond the look, the voice, it is how he comports himself, tall but weighed down with hardship and grief. He delivers melancholy better than any performance that came before or since. Day-Lewis did not just research Lincoln, he found his soul and a way to inhabit it. This is among the greatest performances of the last 25 years and among the finest in film history. Day-Lewis became the first actor to win three Oscars for Best Actor in a leading role, something never before accomplished by an actor. The New York Film Critics honoured him with a fourth Best Actor prize for the performance and he won the lion’s share of critics’ prizes for Best Actor. In a surprise move, the Los Angeles Film Association chose Joaquin Phoenix as Best Actor for his astonishing performance in The Master. Other than that, Phoenix picked the wrong year to compete for acting awards.
As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field is a revelation, fiercely defending her husband’s reputation when questioned, yet merciless when she challenges him. When she demands that Lincoln forbid their son to enlist in the war, there is real fire in her eyes. Their son’s inevitable death will be his fault if he refuses. She exquisitely shows us a woman battling mental illness but also real grief over the death of her child and angst that she will lose another. For the Best Supporting Actress category, Field won the New York Film Critics Circle award and was nominated for an Oscar. The great Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and certainly deserved to win. He is brilliant in his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens.
Lincoln was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and, in the strangest of years, was bested by films and individuals that simply did not deserve their awards. Was Argo really Best Picture or did Ben Affleck gain the popular vote when he was ignored for a Best Director nomination? How was Ang Lee the year’s Best Director for Life of Pi when most of his film was built in a computer. I admired his work, but never felt it was a stronger film or accomplishment than Lincoln. Jones lost Best Supporting Actor and the superb cinematography that transported us back in time was ignored. I will never comprehend the Academy Awards which so often get it right, then blazingly fail as they did with this film. The beautiful, literate screenplay by Tony Kushner was far and away the year’s best script but lost to Chris Terrio for Argo, which took huge liberties with the Canadian story, turning it into an American action film.
Lincoln is a film for the ages, a vitreous look into the past that is as timely now as it ever was, especially with the racial divide in the US. (Although many would argue that Trump, unlike Lincoln, used the divide for his gain instead of trying to bridge it). This movie is an absolute stunner and among the very best works of Steven Spielberg. He should have had that third Oscar for directing this masterpiece.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.