Picking Liam Neeson's best role is like picking the solar system's most inhabitable rock (planet Earth) or The Discovery Channel's best miniseries ('Planet Earth') -- there just isn't that much room for debate. Sure, he was a total bad-ass in 'Ethan Frome' and he narrated the crap out of IMAX's 'Everest,' but Liam Neeson was born with a very particular set of skills, and all of them were put to indelible work as the eponymous anti-hero in Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List.'
The thing about Spielberg's hallowed Holocaust saga is that -- between the fluidity of the filmmaking and the hypnotic power of the performances -- this three-hour pastiche of ghastly genocidal imagery is about as eminently watchable as movies get (an issue with which certain circles have taken considerable offense). Spielberg treated this most careful of subject matters with the solemnity it demands, but the man's an irrepressible entertainer, and his take on the Shoah is every bit as slick as 'Catch Me if You Can' or 'Amistad' (and that one had Matthew McConaughey!).
There's a great bit in the upcoming second season of Louis C.K.'s 'Louie' where he talks about how 'Schindler's List' was a historical document when it first came out, but now it's just another thing that's on, sandwiched between episodes of 'Tosh.0' and 'Chelsea Lately' and troublingly funnier than either (those examples of horrific TV shows are my own). This was sort of inevitable -- the Geneva Convention might actually stipulate that all 90s movies must play on cable at least twice a week -- but the enduring appeal of 'Schindler's List' as a pop spectacle has a lot to do with the fact that its protagonist was practically the Danny Ocean of Nazi Germany.
With that in mind, the brilliance of Neeson's performance is that he perfectly dovetails with the instincts of his director, effectively rendering Schindler as one part hero, one part villain, and all parts showman. Neeson's bold characterization ensures that Spielberg's approach doesn't feel flippant or self-serving, but instead the logical extension of its protagonist's cock-eyed perspective.
Exactly 17% of any great performance lies in a character's introduction, and Schindler is afforded one of the cinema's finest. The film begins, naturally, with a list. Ill-fated Jews crowd at a train station and report themselves to local officials, their names typed large at center-screen, their fates officially sealed. Then we cut to a man greeting the morning in far posher circumstances. He glides into a club as if he owns the place, the camera fawning over his details but not his face. He's causing a scene, several people ask who he is, and even the high-ranking Nazi officers in the room are eager to know his name. He's Oskar Schindler! He's a German, but in this grisly time of gross classifications -- Jewish stars and Nazi pins -- Schindler is a faction unto his own, using his long legs to stride across the battle-lines as he sees fit (a shot in the following scene shows him bounding down a street between two S.S. soldiers and a line of huddled Jews). Neeson's Schindler is the tallest man in any room, towering above the crass inhumanity of the impending genocide like a greedy Dr. Manhattan. Always in a perfectly tailored suit, never a hair out of place, Schindler isn't just surviving World War II, he's making it look good.
Schindler was an individualist during history's deadliest period of mass conformity -- for him the Holocaust was an opportunity to strike it rich -- and Neeson makes his journey from egotism to compassion as epic as any that was ever filmed. His Schindler is fearsome, charismatic, and as believably capable of callous condemnation as he is an act of infinite kindness. The trick is in how Neeson calibrates his character from a man who makes a habit of the former to a man who dedicates himself to the latter. Early in the film, he almost loses his precious Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to a train bound for the concentration camps. He saves Stern at the last minute, berating him for the forgetfulness that incited this predicament by yelling "What if I had gotten here five minutes later? Then where would I be!" The selfishness etched onto his face is so complete and unyielding that the audience immediately understands the extent to which Schindler is sans scruples.
Neeson's expression hardly changes until he observes the liquidation of the ghetto some 30 minutes later, and even then the lines above his mouth adjust their angle by a mere degree or two. It's a subtle progression, as Schindler's power is entirely dependent on keeping his emotions close to the vest. Nevertheless, the entire movie rests upon that wrinkle in Neeson's face. The thousands of extras forced to recreate our civilization's most haunted imagery would have done so for naught if this one actor couldn't sell his character's burgeoning humanity. But Neeson proves himself every bit the salesman Schindler was, and by the time he leans in to kiss a vulnerable Embeth Davidtz on the forehead (promising her it's "Not that kind of kiss"), it's entirely believable that kindness is never impossible.
Of course, Schindler's transformation is expedited by the totality of the evil he encounters, much of it in the form of Ralph Fiennes' Amon Goeth, a high-ranking Nazi officer so demonic that he makes Voldemort look like Ginny Weasley. Goeth is the kind of guy who uses concentration camp prisoners as target practice with his sniper rifle, but secretly loves the Jewish maid he keeps locked in the basement of his villa. A humanitarian, he's not. Goeth can't understand Schindler's conception of power, or why he might want to bribe his fortune away on a fleet of 1,100 redundant Jewish workers. But Neeson's control is unwavering -- he stands before one of the true monsters of the 20th century (Goeth, not Fiennes) and remains at an even keel.
The way Neeson calmly navigates Schindler through these encounters like a benefactor in the guise of a businessman, it's like if Superman had to dress as Clark Kent in order to fool his enemies. But Neeson understands that Schindler wasn't superhuman, that he was just a man who had the vision to see the right thing in a time of suffocating darkness, and the resolve to do the right thing when entreated by the opportunity. His steadiness doesn't reflect a lack of acting, but rather articulates the gestation process through which an act of compassion is born (I don't think it really makes any sense to call Neeson's performance the opposite of the Oscar-nominated scenery-chewing of 'The King's Speech,' but I also don't think I care). Anyway, when the war ends and the inertia of Schindler's mitzvah peters out, he collapses into Stern's arms, and the brusque confidence on which he's coasted for the previous three hours gives way to an implacable sadness. Both are gripping in their own right, but it's how the actor fords the palpable gulf between the two that cements Oskar Schindler as both Liam Neeson's best role as well as his best performance.
...Besides maybe Qui-Gon Jinn.