Abraham Lincoln was a hell of a president, and this year he’s being treated as such. In 2012 alone he's had two movies dedicated to his life. The first, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," was a mostly fictional account (I think) about the president's tireless campaign against undead bloodsuckers. The second, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" (opening wide this week), takes a more factual approach to his life, focusing on the last four months of his presidency and his attempts to get the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ratified. As far as defining moments in the American character go, few are as important as this.
But is this biographical tale, anchored by a lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, a thrilling dip into the past or a really long History Channel special? Let’s find out.
PRO: Daniel Day-Lewis
Yes, his Lincoln voice is sort of weird, but considering the amount of research that went into this thing, it's probably as close an approximation as we're likely to ever hear. Once you get over Day-Lewis' reedy line delivery, you can't help but be impressed. Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln wholly -- his physicality (he has a curved spine and hunched-over stance like Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master"), his oratory tics and his clear-eyed morality (which sometimes leads him down some surprisingly muddy avenues). His Lincoln is not a saint; he's a complicated, occasionally unlikable man. But the entire time you're watching him you get the sensation that this is the closest you'll ever come to seeing Lincoln walking around a room and talking to people… outside of Walt Disney World's Hall of Presidents, that is.
CON: The Structure
By setting the film in the last four months of Lincoln's second term and focusing largely on the legislative hurdles the president faced instead of the Civil War conflicts that were going on at the time, the movie's scope constricts. So while the end result might be more identifiably human, it lacks the scope and scale that you would expect from Steven Spielberg making an Abraham Lincoln movie.
PRO: Sally Field
While the majority of the movie is white guys bickering inside of candlelit rooms, there is at least one female performer who totally dominates, and that is Sally Field, playing Mary Todd Lincoln. She is absolutely a force of nature in this movie and able to gamely hold her own when she goes up against Daniel Day-Lewis (which is really saying something). She is very deserving of an Academy Award nomination for her contribution, and are thrilled that she's had this kind of comeback after starring in one of the year's biggest, most abysmal movies ("Amazing Spider-Man") and barely uttering a word.
CON: It's Pretty Long And Boring
The film begins with an action sequence (sort of) -- it's a recounting of an all-black Union squad getting revenge on some Confederate soldiers. But with a little more virtuosic pep from Spielberg (and the freedom of an R-rating), it could have been just like the explosive openings of "Saving Private Ryan" or "Munich" (written, too, by "Lincoln's" Tony Kushner). Instead the scene feels phoned in, and it’s interrupted by endless dialogue (which, come to think of it, pretty much sets the tone for the entire movie). The fact that Spielberg doesn't, even once, unleash his considerable visual dazzle for a Civil War battle sequence or set something during the celebratory outpouring that accompanied the end of the war and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (when Abe and Mary were making their way to Ford's Theater on that fateful night they were literally passing through hordes of people choking the street in celebration), is either an incredible act of restraint or a severe oversight. At two-and-a-half hours, it could have used a little more zip.
PRO: The Supporting Cast
This being a Steven Spielberg movie about Lincoln, the director filled out the supporting roles with a boggling amount of big-time movie stars and sterling character actors. In short order, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, David Strathaim, Jackie Earl Haley, Bruce McGill, Walton Goggins, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, Julie White and Jeremy Strong all appear. As far as MVPs go, Tommy Lee Jones, as leading abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens is, surprisingly, just as much the emotional center of this movie as Lincoln is (his concluding scene chokes you up more than Abe's). Then there’s the irresistible trifecta of John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader (!), who play a trio of unscrupulous political operatives. The three add much-needed color, humor and energy to the middle section of the movie. Spader, in particular, gives a rousing performance that will most likely get sadly overlooked come awards season.
PRO: The Beards
They really are spectacular. There are teams of hipsters in Brooklyn who will soon have their upturned mustaches vindicated.
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'My Beautiful Launderette'
Sporting bleached, spiky hair, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Johnny, a rough-and-tumble Londoner in the 1985 film. The story follows the friendship, and eventual love story, between Johnny and his long lost friend, Omar. The pair reconnect when they begin to work together at the family-run launderette. Day-Lewis won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
'A Room with a View'
With strung spectacles and an impeccable necktie collection, Day-Lewis is the picture of an Edwardian gentleman in "A Room with a View." In the 1985 British adaptation of E. M. Forster's novel, the actor plays Helena Bonham-Carter's prim, wealthy -- and ultimately undesirable -- suitor, Cecil Vyse. In 1986, Day-Lewis earned his second New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor.
'My Left Foot'
Daniel Day-Lewis's role as Christy Brown in "My Left Foot" is one of the most celebrated performances of his career. Here, he plays a poor man born with cerebral palsy, who can control only his left foot. Because the actor could only manipulate his right foot, many scenes were filmed through a mirror. "My Left Foot" brought method acting to a new high: Day-Lewis befriended many people with disabilities; on set, he refused to break character, moving around set via wheelchair. The actor broke two-ribs while filming due to many weeks of staying in a hunched-over position in his wheelchair. Day-Lewis took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.
'The Last of the Mohicans'
In the 1992 historical film, which chronicles the French and Indian War, Day-Lewis wore tattered clothing and a wild-mane. Again, he was fully immersed in his character of the adopted white son, Nathaniel Hawkeye. During filming, he survived off the land -- camping, hunting and fishing -- and carried a rifle with him at all times. In addition to rigorous weight training, Day-Lewis also learned how to skin animals.
'The Age of Innocence'
In 1993, Day-Lewis starred in Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel "The Age of Innocence." Here he plays the dapper Newland Archer, who is set to marry the beautiful, though somewhat boring, May Welland (Winona Ryder) until he meets her firey cousin, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. In preparation for his role, Day-Lewis wore 1870s-period aristocratic garb -- including top hat, cane and cape --around New York City for two months.
In 1997, Day-Lewis and Jim Sheridan teamed up for a third time for "The Boxer." Here -- nice and shorn --he plays an Irish Republican Army member who was recently released from prison and wants to get back to his boxing roots. In preparation for his role, Day-Lewis trained with former boxing world champion Barry McGuigan.
'Gangs of New York'
After a five-year hiatus from acting, Day-Lewis returned to the big screen in Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" to play the vicious gang leader, Bill the Butcher. Wearing a skull cap, glass eye and that infamous mustache, he again fully immersed himself in the character's life. He took lessons as an apprentice butcher, and never broke character. Day-Lewis was even diagnosed with pneumonia and, for a time, he refused to wear a warmer coat or take medicine, as that would not be historically accurate. The 2002 performance earned him a BAFTA and Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
'There Will Be Blood'
2007 brought about another unforgettable performance from Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood."In the historical drama, set during Southern California's oil boom, Lewis plays the ruthless and money-hungry Daniel Plainview. Day-Lewis swept the award circuit, winning the Academy Award, Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA for Best Actor.
Switching accents, Day-Lewis played Italian director Guido Contini in the musical "Nine." As an eccentric, fedora-wearing filmmaker -- with a crippling case of writer's block -- Day-Lewis once again went against type. But again, the actor transformed himself into his character. He became fluent in Italian and modeled his dressing room after a 1960s film director's office.
In perhaps his most chameleonic role to date, Day-Lewis is the spitting image of Honest Abe in Steven Spielberg's upcoming "Lincoln." While no one can deny that the actor is a dead ringer for Abe, critics were put off by his interpretation of Lincoln's voice. Of course, Day-Lewis had done nearly a year's worth of research in crafting the president's tone.