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Ten Word or Less Review: Should Day Lewis should play every historical character?  Yes!

Playing the historically significant is ripe with trouble for actors.  One can never truly know what lurks behind the eyes of those who shape human history.  Arrogance?  Madness?  Ordinariness benefited through circumstance?  It’s up to actors and writers to determine an approach and very often it’s the wrong one.  Historical figures can calcify on screen as easily as they do in a 7th grade history book.  Go ask Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell about that.  And in deciding to tackle one of America’s penultimate figures, Daniel Day Lewis and director Steven Spielberg have set no small task before themselves.  While trusting in Day Lewis to find a way to approach Abraham Lincoln that would work seemed like a safe bet, betting on Spielberg not to mawkish up the story was a pretty long odd.  It turns out that the auteur actor and the oft overzealous director make fine bedfellows.  Lincoln is another notch in the superb career of Day Lewis and for Spielberg it’s a return to form he hasn’t accomplished in a decade.

It’s January 1865, Lincoln has been re-elected and while many feel that the end of the Civil War could be near, quick victory is no guarantee and a precipitous fall back into rampant bloodshed between the north and south is still a great possibility.  Clouding the future is the 13th Amendment, the amendment which will abolish slavery forever and all days in the still young but warring nation.  The passing of this historic legislation is sitting first and foremost on the mind of the 16th President but getting it passed could lead to ruin.  To push the legislation through as the specter of peace rises on the horizon flies in the face of the South and the peace they tentatively wish to discuss.  To not pass the amendment before war’s end means its loss of support from many, its indefinite shelving and a return to bondage for so many thousands on the cusp of freedoms doorstep.  With no war, why free a people you don’t need to?  This is the political minefield that drives the narrative of Lincoln.  Anyone holding out thoughts that this is an epic tale of the Civil War battles will be quick to discover that the only battles being fought are between white men in frocks and thick coats.

As far as historical figures go Abraham Lincoln has a fairly spotty resume of movie interpretations.  Henry Fonda did him proud back in 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln  and  he made an excellent time traveler with Bill and Ted.  But lately our 16th President has been hijacked by the purveyors of cheap pop culture gimmicks.  The man known for that stove top hat has been relegated to fighting vampires and zombies of late.  In the nick of time he’s been salvaged from the slings and arrows of two-bit mockery by Daniel Day Lewis.  The world class actor avoids the obvious gestures one might expect.  His Lincoln never feels bombastic or stifled by historical importance.  Here, Lincoln is a sensitive and down to Earth personality, determined to push his nation towards the path of righteousness despite the cost.  Day Lewis gives him a sly wit, instills a deep sense of compassion and creates a conceivable humanity to someone so much larger than normal life.  This isn’t to say his Lincoln is a holy figure.  While there are some arguments to be made about punches being pulled, the film at least makes some attempt to address Lincoln’s feelings about the race he wants so desperately to emancipate.  The scene in question feels like a solid attempt to strip away any glorifying of Lincoln and find at least a nugget of honesty about how he felt about the African Americans he was lobbying to free.  The result is one of the film’s best moments.  Day Lewis breathes life into one scene after another, carrying the movie forward on his shoulders with such effortless skill.  It makes one wish that the talent he represents were more frequently on display.  I guess the greatest actor can’t play one of the greatest people every weekend.

The supporting cast around Day Lewis is immense and impressive as well.  It seems no corner of the acting world went untouched  and because Day Lewis plays Lincoln with a quiet presence instead of searing domination, much of the cast gets to shine.  David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and a slew of others populate this very large cast.  Every acclaimed TV show looks to have someone present.  Jones in particular distinguishes himself, using that withered mug of his for moments of wizened resignation but still able to summon up the fires of obstinate anger which have made him such a great screen presence.  Sally Field feels near to being the only female presence in the movie.  She’s saddled with the unenviable task of playing Mary Todd Lincoln, histories least pitied widow.  History hasn’t always been kind to Mary Todd but the filmmakers diligently confront her relationship with Abraham in all of the complexity the film can allow.  Less diligent storytellers could have easily shuffled her off into a corner and made her a hand-wringing hat rack, but Field and company boldly embrace this strange, troubled woman for all she’s worth.  Field, also known to go a bit over when performing, keeps her Mary Todd in check, careful not to lapse into hysteria and silliness.

Most important of all, director Steven Spielberg is careful to keep himself under control.  Last year’s War Horse wasn’t without its quality moments, but it also showed signs that the bearded legend may have lost all touch with what little restraint he ever possessed as a storyteller.  His capacity to over blow even the most rudimentary emotions on screen had many worried that he would turn Lincoln  into an overtly zealous piece of emotional mush.  Also nagging at things was how long it took to get to this movie to the screen.  Spielberg has circled this project for nearly a decade, once intending to make it with Schindler’s List star Liam Neeson.  Many assumed the subject was too daunting for him and he simply didn’t want to rise to the occasion.  Not the case.  While this movie is by all measure distinctly Spielbergian, he doesn’t overplay his story.  The screenplay by Tony Kurshner is largely confined to small chambers and political forums, forcing Spielberg to keep himself under control.  He clearly recognizes the delicate mastery that is Day Lewis’s performance and wisely lets it play without a lot of interference on his behalf.  That isn’t to say he never gets wound up, but he never takes it too far.  And though Spielberg must be applauded for regaining his footing as a director with Lincoln, he still hangs onto his nagging ability to run things on just one moment too long.  The ending of Lincoln stares squarely at the audience, a fade to black waiting to happen, but the story goes on for just a bit more.  It’s not a deal breaker at all, I just can’t help but wonder why this director of such skill, acclaim and longevity can’t figure out when to end his movies.

Over the years I’ve had my fill of movies where righteous white people lobby for the betterment of a minority seen off to the side of the screen, but if once exception could be made this is it.  Lincoln is so much better than I had hoped it would or could be.  It seemed destined to be a movie big on ambition but swallowed up by it all the same.  Marrying Day Lewis’s masterful interpretation of Lincoln to Spielberg’s improved storytelling instincts elevate the movie to a place few expected it would reach.  Those fearing a dry history lesson will be surprised at how quickly they find themselves drawn into this experience.

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