Day-Lewis brings Lincoln to life

By Mick LaSalle
San Francisco Chronicle

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Daniel Day Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in this scene from director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. (David James/DreamWorks II)

It’s the voice. The voice is everything.

History tells us that Abraham Lincoln had a high voice, sometimes described as a silver trumpet, sometimes described as piping, but notably high, enough to be mentioned. And yet, the Lincoln of legend, the Lincoln of movies, has been either been deep-voiced or Henry Fonda (who was in his own vocal category). Lincoln has been an oracle, and now, in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, he is a man.

The voice takes Lincoln down from his Memorial and transforms him, from a timeless sage back into the product of a particular time and place, the mid-19th century, the American frontier. Suddenly, we see the small-town tale-spinner, the backwoods politician, someone who might easily be under-estimated. He seems ungainly — not quaintly awkward — but raw and slightly foreign to modern eyes. So that when we’re reminded that he is, in fact, a political and moral genius, truly one of the great visionaries of history, it’s almost a surprise.

Let’s just say it: The experience of watching Day-Lewis in this role is nothing less than thrilling.

This is Lincoln. No need for a time machine, there he is. There are entire stretches in Lincoln, especially in the cabinet scenes, as you hear the complexity of his legal and strategic thinking, that you might very well forget you’re seeing acting — even forget you’re in a movie theater — and instead believe that you’re sitting in a room with the 16th president. To be on the receiving end of that is more than entertainment. It feels like a gift.

Lincoln deals with a comparatively unknown and politically fraught period after Lincoln’s re-election in the fall of 1864 through early 1865, when the Civil War raged on, even as the North’s victory was assured. Looking toward Reconstruction and the nation that would emerge from the conflict, Lincoln decided that he needed a Constitutional amendment banning slavery in all the states and territories, that the Emancipation Proclamation might not be enough to eradicate slavery forever. But there was a chance, a good chance, that such an amendment might prolong the war. Thus, there began the intense Congressional battle over the Thirteenth Amendment.

The Congress of Lincoln’s is a Congress you might recognize, a body containing a mix of big and shocking small-minded people, some pushing against the tides of history, some complaining that the president is not ideologically pure enough or committed enough to be trusted. Among the radical liberals is Thaddeus Stevens, an ill-tempered and vehement proponent of black rights. For almost a century after Reconstruction — in pro-Confederate histories and even in movies, such as Tennessee Johnson (1942) — Stevens was portrayed as a villain. Here, finally, he gets his due. Surly and scowling and yet decent and right, he is played by the ideal actor to embody those qualities, Tommy Lee Jones.

Lincoln was made to be enjoyed by everybody, but the more you’ve read and the more daguerreotypes you’ve seen, the more you’ll appreciate the film’s astonishing recreation of historical tableaux, such as Lincoln’s visit to the battlefield or the scene outside the Capitol on the occasion of his second inaugural.

Likewise the actors were chosen with an eye for look and temperament.

But all discussions of Lincoln must begin and end with Day-Lewis. He gives us a Lincoln whose patience derives from a lifetime of being smarter than everyone. But even Lincoln’s patience has limits, and the moment when he reaches it — when he slams his hand down on the desk, asserts his power and insist that he will see his vision made real — is breathtaking.

Even better, it really happened.


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