Day-Lewis won the Screen Actors Guild award last night, setting him up nicely to make history in being the first actor to win three Oscars for leading performances. And the most absurd thing is that he was robbed of one in 2002, when he somehow didn’t win as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. This could easily have been his fourth.
The man is a revelation. I teared up two, three times watching Lincoln on Friday, and it wasn’t once because of the admittedly moving content of the story. It was all about his transformation and the authenticity exuding out of him. In the past ten years, he has now played a brutal leader of a nativist New York gang, a ruthless oil tycoon scouring the mid-West, and now America’s finest and most intriguing president. That’s three of the densest and richest characters and performances of the past decade, each with their own distinctive voices and mannerisms. The man is not human.
But Lincoln is all about him. I feared that, given it was Spielberg, sentimentality would soak the film and drown it, but somehow it manages to focus on slavery whilst rarely straying into that territory. No impassioned but cringe-worthy speeches attacking the obvious immorality of racism, no crowds crying to the sound of triumphant music. Again, the sincerity of the acting helps the film to avoid these pitfalls. But it’s also to do with the fact that so much of the film focuses on the pragmatic side of politics – the focus is on how to get things done, not what to do.
A few things I learnt: the Emancipation Proclamation is an odd document to be so fondly remembered. All it did was confiscate Southern slaves as federal property by invoking the president’s constitutional war powers. So not only was it temporary, but it arguably implies acceptance of the premise that slaves were property. Hence Lincoln’s desire to firm things up with a prohibitory constitutional amendment.
But even more remarkable is how, whilst trying to steer the thirteenth amendment through the House against all odds, Lincoln negotiated a contingency peace settlement with the South to end the Civil War. If news of this got out, the House would never pass the amendment, because then they could get the end of war without the need to end slavery. So the aim was to deceive and shoot for both whilst secretly setting up the next best thing for safety. Word got out on the final day, threatening to cause the amendment to implode. Lincoln craftily drafted a statement to Congress that definitely deceived, but avoided explicitly lying in denying the existence of the contingency plan. The amendment went ahead and Lincoln got the moral victory to go alongside the reunification of the States.
There are other things of note, like the personal dilemma thrown up by the fact that Lincoln’s son was fit and old enough to fight, and wished to as his patriotic duty. As Commander in Chief, though, Lincoln refused to draft him, having lost one son to war already. Hypocritical, perhaps, but also entirely understandable.
But Jonathan Freedland notes a moment that was also a highlight for me:
[T]he president encounters Thaddeus Stevens, a radical committed not merely to abolishing slavery, but to racial equality. In this meeting, it is Stevens who is the man of principle and Lincoln who sings an ode to political pragmatism. The president explains that a compass will point you to true north, “but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing true north?”
It is the time-honoured plea of the progressive, yet practical politician: high principles are all very well, but useless if not accompanied by the low cunning of politics. Stevens can keep reiterating the moral necessity of the destination, but it takes Lincoln’s pragmatic mastery of the grubby business of politics to get there.
Peter Bradshaw hails Day-Lewis’ performance as “the nearest thing a 21st-century biopic can get to a seance”:
[He] is a master of the voice and the walk: it’s almost as if he has alchemised his body shape into something different: bowed, spindly and angular, gnarled as a tree, exotic and yet [as] natural as his tall hat.
David Denby similarly swoons:
Seen up close, Day-Lewis’s body appears composed of broad planks of wood held together by hinges at the waist, at the knee, at the neck. He’s stiff, uncomfortable, creaky. His walk (and this is accurate) is an unsteady, bent-shouldered trudge. Lincoln’s voice, famously, was high and piercing. Day-Lewis’s voice is very different, but he mastered Lincoln’s tenor without strain, and is able to work it for humor, for irony, for long bouts of story-telling, and for rare bouts of anger.
And A. O. Scott makes a similar observation to me:
The most famous and challenging beard of them all sits on the chin of Daniel Day-Lewis, who eases into a role of epic difficulty as if it were a coat he had been wearing for years. It is both a curiosity and a marvel of modern cinema that this son of an Anglo-Irish poet should have become our leading portrayer of archaic Americans. Hawkeye (in “Last of the Mohicans”), Bill the Butcher (“Gangs of New York”), Daniel Plainview (“There Will Be Blood”) — all are figures who live in the dim borderlands of memory and myth, but with his angular frame and craggy features, Mr. Day-Lewis turns them into flesh and blood.