First Reaction: Daniel Day-Lewis is mesmerizing in Spielberg’s fantastic ‘Lincoln’

NEW YORK – On Monday night, the New York Film Festival held their second (apparently now annual) ‘Secret Screening.’  Last year, at the first such screening, audiences were treated to Martin Scorsese’s then merely award contender “Hugo,” this year they got a look at Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “Lincoln.”  

Rather than taking on Abraham Lincoln’s life as a whole, the majority of the movie looks at the time after his reelection but before his second inauguration.  It is during this time that Lincoln opted to push for the 13th Amendment to our Constitution and ban slavery – an idea that wasn’t hugely popular, but in which Lincoln (as seen here) fervently believed.  

Introducing the film at the festival, Spielberg repeatedly promised that the work (one that has taken years to put together) was still unfinished.  However, after having seen the film, it is hard to imagine that he will be making many more substantive changes (find a few better matching shots between cuts?  shorten the ending?).  My initial reaction is that the film is a fantastic triumph, one destined for awards glory this year.

A surefire player throughout the upcoming awards season, “Lincoln” seems like one of those films where everything comes together in the right way at the right time.  Everything about the film is an incredible balancing act – it manages to be dark and yet lighthearted, it offers up both the personal and the political (regularly mixing them), and it questions whether you can do bad in order to do good.  It walks a tightrope without ever falling.

Throughout his career, Daniel Day-Lewis has given us a number of memorable characters, and his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is one of the best.  Abraham Lincoln was a storyteller and throughout the film, the Lincoln we see offers up a huge number of stories to anyone who will listen (and sometimes to those who won’t).  The stories are funny, but always arrive at a deeper truth about the situation at hand.  More importantly though for the audience, watching Day-Lewis tell these tales is mesmerizing – the film could almost work as a one-man show with Lincoln giving everyone’s point of view and constantly interjecting his own.

It is more than just the soliloquies though which makes this portrayal of the 16th President compelling, it is in the way Day-Lewis carries himself as Lincoln.  No one would argue the great weight placed on the President’s shoulders during the Civil War, and no one would suggest that Lincoln’s home life was particularly easy or happy, and those upsets are right there in the sloped shoulders and shuffling steps offered on screen.  There remains a great strength within the President’s body and when he needs to rise up to his full height and offer it, he does, but even when he is shuffling along, Lincoln’s might is still evident.

Surrounding Day-Lewis is a large number of more than capable actors including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sally Field, James Spader, Jared Harris, Tommy Lee Jones, and David Strathairn.  Field’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln-a woman with a great deal of troubles all her own-is strong.  It feels somewhat over the top on occasion, but mostly she is simply overshadowed by Day-Lewis’ President.

Not to take anything away from the other members of the supporting cast, but Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as Thaddeus Stevens proves truly exceptional. Jones presents Stevens as a man conflicted about whether he needs to follow his beliefs (everyone, regardless of color, is equal) or whether he needs to play politics and disavow some of them to achieve a greater good.

One of the most memorable sequences in the movie takes place in the House of Representatives when Stevens is asked whether black people are truly equal in all ways or just equal under the law.  In an effort to not lose votes, nor what popular support exists for the Amendment, he holds back and declares them equal under the law.  It is a huge win for the 13th Amendment as a piece of legislation and a terrible loss for what’s right.

A good portion of the movie is also devoted to the attempts of the President and Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn)’s attempts to cajole lame duck Democrats to vote for the Amendment.   There is a whole lot of wheeling and dealing that takes place and much of it is distasteful even if it’s done in amusing fashion (Spader’s WN Bilbo takes the lead here).  

Here again we are offered up the choice between that which is wholly right and that which will manage to accomplish the greatest good.  Kushner’s screenplay, while it casts Lincoln as an unquestionable hero, asks how far can a hero go in the service of what is right.  It is a question not easily sorted out and one for which the film hesitates to give an unequivocal answer.  Stevens’ answer in the House is exactly what Lincoln wanted Stevens to say, but it isn’t a choice with which “Lincoln” necessarily agrees.

A long movie-it”s over 2 hours and 25 min. -“Lincoln” manages to leave one wanting more, but still a mite disappointed with its ending.  The vote on the 13th Amendment is the film’s climax but not its conclusion.  It is almost as though Spielberg felt compelled to include the end of Lincoln’s life in the movie even if it didn’t quite fit into the story being told.

What does, however, fit beautifully is Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography.  The sets and costumes are wonderful and Kaminski’s cinematography brings it all to life.  For his part, John Williams has delivered a good, if not terribly memorable, score.  It may meld with what is happening during the movie, but it may not stick with audiences afterwards

“Lincoln” is a war film and a political drama; a story of personal tragedy and triumph; it is beautiful to look at and at times horrible to see; and although in a Q&A at the festival Steven Spielberg said he had asked for the film to be released after this year’s election, it is a tale of politics from 150 years ago that is just as relevant today.   

Although technically screened as a work in progress, “Lincoln” is shaping up to be one of Spielberg’s best.

“Lincoln” opens nationwide on Nov. 9.