Spielberg’s Lincoln, or more accurately, Kushner and Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, is a great mixed-bag of a movie. I mean that literally – it’s great, and it’s a mixed bag. It has some fabulous cinematography along with scenes that look like they were lit for a high school production (like someone mashed Minority Report with Hook.) It has elegant storytelling and some great lines along with at least a dozen clunkers. With the exception of the title role, Avy Kaufman raided central casting and most of the performances are overwhelmed by facial hair (Tommy Lee Jones is a particular mistake, and I found Sally Field distracting.) Spielberg’s direction is alternately superb and indulgent of his worst tendencies (there are way too many tearfully grateful, well-scrubbed black faces, along with the by-now-standard Spielberg framing device.) John Williams’ score is uncommonly subdued, but I liked it best when it wasn’t used.
And yet… Daniel Day-Lewis carries the whole thing on his stooped shoulders, and damned if he doesn’t just about redeem the whole mess. He’s phenomenal. He takes the most iconic of characters and gives an iconic performance – in the sense that its virtuosity will long be admired and cited. From the voice to his physical control, to line readings that he seems to be inventing on the spot and eyes that take us into his spirit, I can’t remember being more enthralled at a screen performance.