It says a lot about the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis that Lincoln—an otherwise perfectly fine but unimpressive film—could be about 40 percent worse and still be worth seeing. It arrives at the time of the year when performances are supposed to stand out, and Day-Lewis will likely stand out the most.
There's a short list of actors who are generally considered among the best in the world, and the two-time Oscar winner (My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood) can be found at or near the top of it. If you're an actor with a conscience, bringing any historical figure to life onscreen has inherent responsibilities. In American history, nobody else quite rises to the level of Lincoln. That raises the stakes, and Day-Lewis, by virtue of his pristine track record, raises the expectations. Amazingly enough, he manages to quietly surpass them.
Steven Spielberg's film is taken from the pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and it has had a long gestation. Spielberg committed to the project in 1999; DreamWorks bought the rights in 2001 (long before Goodwin's book was completed); Liam Neeson was confirmed to play Lincoln for the better part of decade while Spielberg worked on other projects; and replacement screenwriter Tony Kushner adapted a dense story into a script. (At one point, the screenplay reached 500 pages.) Finally, in 2010, Day-Lewis signed on, and production slowly began.
Appropriate for the current political climate, Lincoln is long on gridlock and grind. The film begins in what we would now call the lame-duck session, after his 1864 re-election, with Lincoln hatching a plan to outlaw slavery once and for all. His Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order freeing current slaves in seceded states, but the Thirteenth Amendment would be the final word. And Lincoln used the North's momentum in the bloody Civil War as a tool to leverage the legislation.
It may have been the biggest political risk in U.S. history—keeping up the fighting until the amendment would pass instead of negotiating an earlier peace—and it certainly had very little support beyond Lincoln's closest allies. As a film device, this may rub audiences the wrong way, dealing as it does with negotiations and tactics more than the life and personal struggles of our tragic 16th president. Spielberg does not present a timeline or even a biography. This is instead evidence of Abraham Lincoln's character through a particularly trying time, even by the standards of his particularly trying presidency.
Much of the screenplay seems like recitations of speeches or diary entries, and while that gives Lincoln some historical credibility, it also leads to some very long monologues. Some are fantastic, and others are just long. The film's primary drawback is its pacing and tone, and those speeches are a big reason why. However, Lincoln also goes for laughs at strange times (just look for James Spader), and occasionally offsets the president's somber nature with boisterous scenes that don't play well.
There are too many characters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing Lincoln's eldest son, is adrift. Congressmen come and go with blinding frequency. And while those people may have been important, they are not as important to the film and only take away from what is important—namely, that central performance.
Tommy Lee Jones (as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Sally Field (as Lincoln's wife) will get a modicum of Oscar talk, but the only real achievement is by Daniel Day-Lewis. He not only captures what we know about Lincoln, but also illustrates those things we don't. His performance goes beyond technical proficiency into immersion, and does so without ever sliding into mimicry. This is one of the extremely rare portrayals that redefines a character from our shared history, like DeNiro's Jake LaMotta.
Lincoln will never look or sound exactly the same again thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis.