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In 'Lincoln,' Daniel Day-Lewis somehow exceeds sky-high expectations

It says a lot about the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis that Lincoln—an otherwise perfectly fine but unimpressive film—could be about 40 percent worse and still be worth seeing. It arrives at the time of the year when performances are supposed to stand out, and Day-Lewis will likely stand out the most.

There's a short list of actors who are generally considered among the best in the world, and the two-time Oscar winner (My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood) can be found at or near the top of it. If you're an actor with a conscience, bringing any historical figure to life onscreen has inherent responsibilities. In American history, nobody else quite rises to the level of Lincoln. That raises the stakes, and Day-Lewis, by virtue of his pristine track record, raises the expectations. Amazingly enough, he manages to quietly surpass them.

Steven Spielberg's film is taken from the pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and it has had a long gestation. Spielberg committed to the project in 1999; DreamWorks bought the rights in 2001 (long before Goodwin's book was completed); Liam Neeson was confirmed to play Lincoln for the better part of decade while Spielberg worked on other projects; and replacement screenwriter Tony Kushner adapted a dense story into a script. (At one point, the screenplay reached 500 pages.) Finally, in 2010, Day-Lewis signed on, and production slowly began.

Appropriate for the current political climate, Lincoln is long on gridlock and grind. The film begins in what we would now call the lame-duck session, after his 1864 re-election, with Lincoln hatching a plan to outlaw slavery once and for all. His Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order freeing current slaves in seceded states, but the Thirteenth Amendment would be the final word. And Lincoln used the North's momentum in the bloody Civil War as a tool to leverage the legislation.

It may have been the biggest political risk in U.S. history—keeping up the fighting until the amendment would pass instead of negotiating an earlier peace—and it certainly had very little support beyond Lincoln's closest allies. As a film device, this may rub audiences the wrong way, dealing as it does with negotiations and tactics more than the life and personal struggles of our tragic 16th president. Spielberg does not present a timeline or even a biography. This is instead evidence of Abraham Lincoln's character through a particularly trying time, even by the standards of his particularly trying presidency.

Much of the screenplay seems like recitations of speeches or diary entries, and while that gives Lincoln some historical credibility, it also leads to some very long monologues. Some are fantastic, and others are just long. The film's primary drawback is its pacing and tone, and those speeches are a big reason why. However, Lincoln also goes for laughs at strange times (just look for James Spader), and occasionally offsets the president's somber nature with boisterous scenes that don't play well.

There are too many characters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing Lincoln's eldest son, is adrift. Congressmen come and go with blinding frequency. And while those people may have been important, they are not as important to the film and only take away from what is important—namely, that central performance.

Tommy Lee Jones (as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Sally Field (as Lincoln's wife) will get a modicum of Oscar talk, but the only real achievement is by Daniel Day-Lewis. He not only captures what we know about Lincoln, but also illustrates those things we don't. His performance goes beyond technical proficiency into immersion, and does so without ever sliding into mimicry. This is one of the extremely rare portrayals that redefines a character from our shared history, like DeNiro's Jake LaMotta.

Lincoln will never look or sound exactly the same again thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis.

Lincoln
Rated PG-13 · 149 minutes · 2012
Official Site: thelincolnmovie.com
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Jonathan King, Daniel Lupi and Jeff Skoll
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Jones, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Costabile, Jackie Haley, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jared Harris, Walton Goggins, Gulliver McGrath, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben and John Hawkes

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More by Colin Boyd

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What others are saying (19)

Style Weekly Abe Goes Hollywood His country didn't admire him. Richmond didn't talk about him. So why are we so starstruck now? by Edward Ayers, Wayne Melton, Jason Roop, Melissa Scott Sinclair and Edwin Slipek 11/06/2012
Gambit Review: Lincoln Ken Korman on Steven Spielberg's biography of the Great Emancipator by Ken Korman 11/20/2012
Charleston City Paper Spielberg's Lincoln humanizes the legendary president When you hear that Steven Spielberg directed an Abraham Lincoln biopic, you get an image in your head of what it must look like: overtly sentimental, grand in scale, and more about idealized hero worship than anything else. The famed director's historical dramas tend to be maudlin affairs, custom-made for history classrooms, and no doubt Lincoln will be shown to many a middle school over the ensuing decades. by Jake Mulligan 11/14/2012
16 more reviews...
Chicago Reader Dishonest Abe Daniel Day-Lewis is Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's biopic by J.R. Jones 11/07/2012
Indy Week Daniel Day-Lewis ends slavery in Lincoln Steven Spielberg's Lincoln accomplishes the seemingly irreconcilable feat of humanizing Abraham Lincoln while preserving his mythology. by Neil Morris 11/14/2012
Memphis Flyer Lincoln Steven Spielberg’s weighty portrait of the most iconic president. by Addison Engelking 11/22/2012
Portland Mercury Lincoln Is Fucking Crazy!!! Just kidding! Lincoln is exactly what you expect! by Erik Henriksen 11/14/2012
Default Review: Lincoln Ken Korman on Steven Spielberg's biography of the Great Emancipator by Ken Korman 11/20/2012
Creative Loafing Atlanta Being MLK The Mountaintop and Lincoln raise questions about the risks and rewards of bringing history's heroes to life by Curt Holman 11/15/2012
Style Weekly Extra Terrestrial The otherworldly experience of bringing history to life as a background player. by Jason Roop 11/06/2012
Arkansas Times Living history 'Lincoln' is high drama. by Sam Eifling 11/21/2012
Style Weekly But Will They Come? Richmond is ecstatic about its star turn, but some doubt that tourists will care. by Melissa Scott Sinclair 11/06/2012
Colorado Springs Independent Honest to goodness: Lincoln This president earned his place in history, and so shall the film. by Tricia Olszewski 11/14/2012
East Bay Express Lincoln Pomp and circumstance. by Kelly Vance 11/14/2012
Style Weekly Movie Review: "Lincoln" Spielberg’s biopic looks behind the monument for the extraordinary person. by Wayne Melton 11/07/2012
New Times San Luis Obispo Review: Lincoln Ken Korman on Steven Spielberg's biography of the Great Emancipator by Ken Korman 11/20/2012
Creative Loafing Charlotte Lincoln parked Rating: **1/2 by Matt Brunson 11/16/2012

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