Over Thanksgiving weekend we were visiting family in Washington D.C. and, although we didn’t specifically visit it this time, we frequently drove past the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial matches the way most of our country views Abraham Lincoln, as a towering, grandiose figure larger than life. I’ve felt that way about Lincoln myself. As Sarah Vowell put it, we’ve been taught to like Washington and respect Jefferson, but Lincoln we were taught to love.
Embodying him, therefore, carries immense challenges, and with Lincoln Daniel Day Lewis meets and exceeds them in Steven Spielberg’s brilliant film, guided by Tony Kushner’s wondrous script. Day Lewis brings palpable humanity to a man we can’t help seeing in marble or copper. Our first introduction is only to his voice, as we see the back of his head as he is addressing troops. Instead of the stovepipe hat and whiskers, we hear his reedy, Midwestern tones, and our perception begins to accept a person rather than an image. There’s none of Daniel Plainview’s booming hubris in his speaking voice, or William Poole’s rage. Here Day Lewis embodies a man who can’t afford to be carried by his emotions. When, in his private moments, he does allow his anger or grief to rage you have the sense of how intense that storm is inside him, how destructive and damaging it could be to him and those around him, and how heavy the weight of carrying all of that is to him.
What moved me most was the portrait of Lincoln as a husband and father. In cabinet meetings or conversations with William Seward (ably played by David Strathairn) or Thaddeus Stevens (a masterful Tommy Lee Jones) he is still on stage, performing the role of Great Leader. But alone with son Robert (the reliably excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt) he can reveal some of his fear at the chance he will lose another son. With his wife Mary Todd (a genuinely moving Sally Field) he can express the frustration and weight of his immense burdens. And with young Tad (Gulliver McGrath), Day Lewis reveals the tenderness of the man. His scenes of Lincoln with Tad reminded me of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
Steven Spielberg, who is often remembered most for the bombast in his movies, reminded me how masterfully he directs intimate and quiet moments as well. One peaceful moment, when Lincoln lies down on the floor next to his sleeping son Tad, waits for the boy to climb on his back, then carries him to bed stood out to me. It seemed to echo the dinner table scene between Chief Brody and his son in Jaws. Each are small moments in outsized films, but each are touching. I was also struck by a scene where a weary Lincoln talks with two telegraph operators. In it, he sets down that famous hat, and we hear the thump as it echoes in the mostly empty room. In that brief moment I could imagine the weight of that hat, and with it the weight of the image it represents to us. To have to carry so much for so many. Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have known how he would be remembered, but it becomes clear throughout he was palpably aware of how he needed to be seen by those he sought to lead.
Already this movie is gathering accolades. Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, and Tony Kushner just received the New York Film Critics Circle awards for Best Actor, Supporting Actress and Screenplay. I expect these are going to be the first of many awards each picks up in the coming months, and I have no doubt these were deserved, and I expect they won’t be the last, either.