Lincoln (2012): Spielberg Epic Biopic, Starring Daniel Day-Lewis in Oscar Caliber Performance

Spielberg doesn’t need more accolades as a storyteller or as master of spectacle, but it’s time to acknowledge him as a great actor’s director.

In “Lincoln,” Spielberg’s latest historical epic, his collaboration with the brilliant actor Daniel Day-Lewis produces nothing short of a miracle, a spellbinding performance that does justice to the movie as a multi-nuanced portrait of the much revered American president. It also demonstrates how crucial it is for a director to cast the right actor in the right part, and then to inspire him to reach the highest level possible of his metier.

Day-Lewis is already a two-time Oscar winner, in 1989 for “My Left Foot,” and in 2007 for “There Will Be Blood.” I have no doubts that his compelling performance as the sixteenth president of the U.S., known for ending the Civil War and abolishing slavery by law, would garner him yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination, perhaps even win the award itself.

That said, Spielberg should get credit for the grand yet subtle, multi-shaded yet devoid of any theatrical histrionics, interpretation that Day-Lewis lends his part. To prove my point of a fruitful director-actor collaboration, I would like to contrast Day-Lewis’ work in “Lincoln” with his performance in “Gangs of New York,” directed by Spielberg’s peer and friend, Scorsese. If in “Gangs of New York,” Day-Lewis rose above the material despite the misguided direction and flawed production, in “Lincoln,” he services the high-quality material because of his director’s guidance and approach.

Shown as a “Secret Screening” at the 2012 New York Film Festival in October, and serving as closing night of the AFI Film Fest in Los Angeles, “Lincoln” will be distributed theatrically by Disney on November 9 in limited release and on November 16 in wide release.

As of today, “Lincoln” is a major contender for Oscar Awards in at least eight or nine categories: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (Tony Kushner), Actor (Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Sally Fied), 2 Supporting Actor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones), Cinematography (Janus Kaminski) and other technical categories.

Reportedly, Spielberg has been thinking about a Lincoln movie for about a decade. He was involved in the book upon which Tony Kushner’s screenplay is based, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, long before it got published. Upon its release, in 2005, Goodwin’s chronicle became a mega-bestseller, breaking out from the biography shelves as a must-read.

As producer and director, Spielberg has made a number of shrewd strategic choices, prime among which is not to direct a conventional biopic about Lincoln that will chronicle his entire life, from childhood to assassination—sort of the rise and death of a quintessential American president.  Nor does he takes the common Hollywood approach of the “Great Man,” sort of mythological portraits of crucial historical figures (very popular in the 1930s)

Instead, Spielberg decided to focus on the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency, from January to May of 1865, to be precise. During those fateful months, the full measure of the man—his politics, his passion, his domestic life, and his humanity—came to bear on his presidency, specifically on his dual battle: to end the Civil War, which was in its fourth year, and to legally abolish slavery as an archaic institution on the floor of the House of Representatives.

In the process, Lincoln engaged in planning a forward path for a war-shattered, divided nation. Moreover, he succeeded in executing his vision against overwhelming odds and extreme pressures, both personal-familial and public-political.

Spielberg’s “Lincoln” provides a highly intimate, historically detailed chronicle, sometimes week-by-week, or day-by-day (with title cards of the particular time and place projected on screen, but not in an intrusive manner) of the American leader’s most perilous and revealing moments. After all, this was the time when the dark shadow of slavery was finally lifted and the war-torn began a healing process towards becoming a unified whole.

A densely rich, never-before seen human drama unfolds in “Lincoln,” as the president doubles down to end the devastating Civil War not merely by ending the war but by fighting to pass the 13th Amendment, which would permanently abolish slavery. Historians consider his decision to be an act of true personal courage and national daring.

To accomplish that, Lincoln mobilized all of his resources, his considerable communication skills, admirable courage, and moral fortitude, for which he was known and which would help make him one of the most legendary, much revered American presidents.

In the process, Lincoln, self-conscious to the extreme, grappled with the impact of his actions on his cabinet, enemies, and the nation at large (both the Union and the Confederacy) and also on those he loved the most, his troubled wife Mary (Sally Field), and his eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to join the war effort, defying his father’s wish.

A good deal of the chronicle deals with the nitty-gritty elements of the democratic process, which makes “Lincoln” sort of a procedural” movie, one of the first (if I am right) to show in such details how votes in favor of the Amendment are solicited from members of the coalition and members of the opposition.

We observe Lincoln with his advisors tailoring specific agendas and strategies of how to convince, persuade, compel, and pressure individual members of the House of Representatives to support the president’s goals, even if they are initially against them.

Tony Kushner, the gifted Pulitzer Prize winner for “Angels in America,” who had previously collaborated with Spielberg on the 2005 Oscar nominated “Munich,” does a commendable job of clarifying the positions and personalities of the two dozen or so political players. (There are more speaking parts in this movie than in any other American film this year).

In stripping Lincoln’s final days down to their most momentous stark moments of intellectual debates political machinations, family ties and private fears and hopes, Spielberg and Kushner uncover the gripping—and unpredictably human—nature of a democracy’s greatest battle in action. Though it’s only one of the important aspects of the story, there is an element of suspense in “Lincoln,” namely, how long would it take the president to get the votes that he needs and at what political, familial, and personal price? In this respect, “Lincoln” could be regarded as a sort of political thriller, even if we know the ultimate outcome (We also knew the results as we watched “All the President’s Men,” the Watergate account, and we still were intrigued and entertained by Alan Pakula’s 1976 picture.

 In its good moments, which are plentiful, the film invites audiences directly into the heart and soul of the American political process in general and of Lincoln’s final achievements in particular.

As played by Day-Lewis, Lincoln emerges as a man of many faces, a figure of raw paradoxes and contradictions. In his public as in in his private life, Lincoln could be really funny or damn solemn, playful storyteller—a great raconteur– and fierce power broker, a shrewd commander in chief and a vulnerable father, a loving yet ruthless husband when harsh decisions need to be made.

The film’s entire ensemble, which is extremely large, is flawless. But, ultimately, “Lincoln” is a Spielberg picture, by which I mean a movie shaped by the sensibility and aesthetics of its auteur.

Though not intended as such, “Lincoln” serves as an intriguing companion piece to John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” starring Henry Fonda at his very best.  As the title suggests, Ford’s film, made in 1939 and thus assuming political relevancy due to the context in which it was released, centered on the early years of the president’s life.  Ford, a sentimental director who engaged in mythmaking in many of his pictures, idealized the figure.  In contrast, Spielberg goes out of his way to show how Lincoln, a flawed, complicated man, especially in the last months of his life, could nevertheless accomplish incredible things, inspire even those ensnared in war and other dark legacies to switch directions and allegiances and rally together behind a collective cause.

Inevitably, “Lincoln” wishes to draw parallels and analogies between the past and the present. In the nation’s darkest hours, when thousands of Americans lose their lives in the battlefield, when the socio-economic contexts dictate poverty, starvation, and unemployment, Lincoln courageously demands the very best of all people (beginning with his family and administration), digging deep inside himself (and reaching from within himself) for something bigger, more powerful and everlasting than the present: the future of the American Dream.

Relying on his accomplished cast and long-trusted crew behind the cameras, Spielberg makes the war-torn world, which Lincoln irrevocably changed in 1865, a visceral, relevant, and contemporary experience.

Lincoln occupies a special position in the American collective consciousness.  His silhouette has morphed into a global symbol of the hope that power can be wielded judiciously.  As a movie, “Lincoln” deconstructs and demystifies the iconic imagery of President Lincoln by centering on the flesh-and-blood man, but without tarnishing his legendary status in American history.