Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably the greatest actor of our time, announced that he was retiring from acting in 2017 following the release of Phantom Thread, the excellent Paul Thomas Anderson film in which he starred. This is of course our loss, but perhaps fitting since five years previously Day-Lewis had already played the role of a lifetime, the kind of part that most actors would be well-advised to avoid entirely: that of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 masterpiece Lincoln.
The film had long been a passion project for the director. He’d obtained the film rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a portion of which is the basis for the movie, three years before the book was even published. At one time, Liam Neeson, the star of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), was set to play the 16th president of the United States, but that iteration of the project fell apart due to the director’s dissatisfaction with the script. Years later, however, Spielberg developed a working relationship with Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Angels in America, among other acclaimed works; the two have worked together four times since 2005’s Munich. In Kushner, Spielberg seems to have found his ideal writing collaborator, in that Kushner is able to cut through what I’m sure Spielberg would admit are his natural sentimental instincts. So it was Kushner who he finally tapped to write his long-gestating, and often in doubt, Lincoln film.
Lincoln is not really a biopic, in that it’s not a cradle-to-grave account of the man’s life. Rather, it focuses on a very specific time in Lincoln’s presidency: the period near the end of the Civil War when Lincoln, alongside certain sympathetic members of his cabinet and Members of the House, worked to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. The amendment was legally complex, and what Lincoln wanted, of course, was to not only pass it, but also bring the war to a close as quickly as possible. Doing both was no easy task, given that, however badly the South was losing by that point, negotiating peace with the Confederacy would be extremely difficult if they decided that Lincoln was offering them nothing in return.
Lincoln’s closest ally in the film is William Seward (David Straithairn), the Secretary of State, but one of the chief pleasures of Lincoln is watching how even those who share the president’s political and moral goals can grow frustrated with the man, either because his means can seem to them catastrophically short-sighted, or, in making his case for one thing or another, Lincoln’s way of speaking can seem needlessly oblique. At one point, Lincoln says to Seward (who in this scene has already thrown up his hands in hopelessness) “Time is a great thickener of things,” to which Seward replies “I suppose it is. Actually, I have no idea what you mean by that.” (Later, a long story Lincoln tells about Ethan Allen drives Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) from the room.) His cabinet indulges him when he tells his stories, or ramblingly builds on a point, until they don’t. And for his part, Lincoln quietly allows them their frustrations, and the times when they loudly disagree with him—perhaps because he knew the decision was ultimately his anyway—until he decides to stop being nice. One of Day-Lewis’s many show-stopping scenes comes in the last third or so of the film. For the umpteenth time, his allies are whining about the difficulty in procuring the necessary Democratic votes to pass the amendment, and Lincoln’s typical calmness splinters like a lightning-struck tree:
I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war! I wonder if any of you or anyone else knows it. I know! I need this! This amendment is that cure! We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters!