Lincoln Movie Review: Why Daniel Day Lewis and His Method Acting Make Lincoln Shine

Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited historical drama Lincoln will hit theaters nationwide this Friday, after a week of limited releases throughout the U.S.

With a $50 million budget and a solid screenplay written by Tony Kushner, Lincoln did not disappoint. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of President Lincoln, the film begins predictably with a dark battle scene that depicts the grittiness of hand to musket combat during the Civil War. 

This brief scene — surprisingly the only violent one in the entire film — is used to set the solemn tone. The rest of the 2 hour and 45 minute production is focused on the politics in the House of Representatives, the nation, and Lincoln’s own family.

The film starts with the last legs of the war and continues to follow the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Having passed the Emancipation Proclamation, without much consent, President Lincoln sought to convince the House to pass the 13th Amendment to free all slaves. 

He does so with the knowledge that if the South rejoins the North before the amendment is passed, he may be forced to re-enslave the men who were freed to fight in the war. Aside from expressing Lincoln’s personal beliefs on equality, the amendment was also strategic. The hope was that once Confederate rebels realized slavery would end — after the passing of the amendment — they would surrender.

Lincoln’s first appearance is during a scene in which four soldiers, two white and two black, are talking about their individual battalions. The scene ends with three of the four men quoting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address back to him in an awkward, textbook moment. This pedantic dialogue foreshadowed the rest of the clichéd plot.

Luckily Daniel Day Lewis' performance carries the film to safety. Lewis’ Lincoln is not only moving, but also very realistic. Or as realistic as possible in terms of what little we know about Honest Abe’s personality. Lewis was at liberty to use creative license, and did so with raw emotion, and a kindness that seemed true to Lincoln’s demeanor. 

Known for his method acting in films such as Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood, Lewis was rumored to have people refer to him as Abe off set. He chose to portray Lincoln as someone who understood the human condition — an intellectual storyteller who was kind, yet immutable in his beliefs. Kushner had Lewis’ Lincoln use anecdotes and stories to deliver points, as opposed to lectures and commands. 

Each word of advice or parable Lincoln utters seems to be taken straight from an account of someone who saw him daily. It's hard to fathom there's such little information on Lincoln in terms of his private life and personality. Lincoln's believability is a testament to solid writing by Kushner and presumably Goodwin. Lincoln provided depth and introspection in each scene, like listening to your grandfather.

Although Lincoln is portrayed calmly, he is not without conviction. At a historically rare 6’4’’ tall, Lincoln has his priorities straight. His morals are good, and his intellect sound. The character often used his charismatic demeanor to win favor among the opposition.

Nearly half of the movie is spent with the House of Representatives, following the efforts of Lincoln's Republican 13th Amendment supporters’ attempts to convert the views of the Democratic Party. A dominant character is the sharp-minded, yet frail-bodied, Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones. Jones does a fabulous job portraying a man who never wavered in his civil rights beliefs but still managed to be a little snarky.  

What sets Lincoln apart — aside from its $50 million budget, all-star cast, and Spielberg touch — is its unique look into President Lincoln’s personal life. His sons Tad and Robert, played by Gulliver McGrath and Joseph Gordon-Levitt respectively, as well as wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field, are a key part of the film.

Field does a solid job of depicting a woman who is both proud of her husband, yet resentful of his stoicism after the death of their son Willie. Todd is a wreck and can’t get over the guilt of having prioritized her obligations as First Lady over tending to her sick son. In turn, her eldest, Robert, can’t find meaning in a life not spent contributing to his father’s effort. Although both Field and Levitt are not memorably cast, they are believable as characters who obviously adore the president, but resent him for their own reasons.    

The film concludes, with a PG version of Lincoln’s assassination. This comes soon after the passing of the 13th Amendment, a revelation regarding Thaddeus Steven and compelling changes of hearts amongst House reps.

The last scene depicts Lincoln addressing the nation in speech that occurred soon before his death. He offers words of hope to the people. The oratory ends the film on a reflective note. audience members can think about how a mere 150 years has passed since our nation faced such troubling times, how far we’ve come since, and how far we still have to go.