Day-Lewis brings 'Lincoln' to life

Reviewer's Rating: ★★★1/2

Daniel Day-Lewis can add Abraham Lincoln to his list of unforgettable screen characters.

The 16th president of the United States has been portrayed many times on screen, but never with such passion, warmth, humor and humility.

Lincoln lives, vividly, in the two-time Oscar-winning Irish actor’s performance in director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Tall, thin, slightly stooped, Lincoln is a storyteller, a jokester, a tender father and loving husband. For history’s sake, he’s most of all a magnanimous leader who fights to ensure the nation will be undivided and free.

Ironically, Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, and its many well-preserved structures, including the Virginia State Capitol, serve as the film’s Washington, D.C., set. Along with the movie’s immersive sets, certain scenes based around Lincoln, such as his horseback ride through a body-strewn battlefield in Petersburg, Va., are made especially memorable by Day-Lewis’ contemplative image as the Civil War president.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and former Lake Charles resident, based the film on presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

The resulting movie is not a conventional biopic. Spielberg and Kushner narrow their focus to the last few months of the Civil War and, final months of Lincoln’s life.

Lincoln’s priorities are ending the war that’s ripped the nation in two, lasted four years and would ultimately leave, by a recent estimate that’s gained acceptance, a death toll of 750,000 men. Simultaneously, the president is committed to abolishing, once and for all, slavery in these United States.

Beyond Civil War battlefields, which get a brief but visceral, hand-to-hand depiction at the beginning of the film, the way to peace as well as freedom for 4 million slaves is one of words.

Kushner’s script often is a rush of words, arguments and debates. Verbal battles take place in the dramatically divided U.S. Congress. There’s also much sparring between the determined president and his combative cabinet. At first, the mid-19th century verbosity is off-putting but probably many moviegoers can adjust their modern ears accordingly.

Battles also erupt between the president and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Sally Field plays Mrs. Lincoln, a woman subject to emotional outbursts that challenge both husband and wife. As definitive as Day-Lewis is as Lincoln, Field, who’s also won two Academy Awards, matches him every step of the way. Her character’s mercurial personality is a weapon unto itself.

Field shares dynamic scenes with Day-Lewis as well as prominent supporting player Tommy Lee Jones. In the role of Thaddeus Stevens, a congressman from Pennsylvania viewed in his day as a radical Republican, Jones turns silent when Mrs. Lincoln launches a verbal attack against the usually commanding Stevens. Field delivers the barrage as delicious payback.

Just as Day-Lewis and Field are candidates for acting awards, Jones, too, has one of his most important but entertaining roles as Stevens. The congressman’s attempts to have Mrs. Lincoln jailed for spending too much for White House renovations aside, Stevens more importantly is instrumental in getting the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution through the House of Representatives. He steals the show during some noisy political theater.

All the while there’s much political maneuvering behind the scenes. The movie assembles a deep cast of ensemble players for these sometimes comic shenanigans, including David Straithairn as Lincoln’s secretary of state and former rival for the presidency, William Seward; Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, the Republican reformer and rich, powerful Southern politician who advised the president; and, adding the comic relief, a gang of scalawags, played John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson, that most certainly is a 19th-century version of lobbyists.