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'Lincoln' Review: Daniel Day-Lewis Delivers a Legendary Performance

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The long-awaited release of 'Lincoln' has finally arrived. It marks the first time legendary director Steven Spielberg and acclaimed actor Daniel Day-Lewis have worked together.

Danny Watkins

Daniel Day-Lewis, a two-time Academy Award winner (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood) is well known for disappearing into his roles. With his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, it is easily the best performance of the year and arguably the best performance of his career. While watching the film, his performance is so remarkable that you forget you're in the theatre. Daniel Day-Lewis literally brought Abraham Lincoln back to life for 2 1/2 hours and it was a privilege to bear witness to such a legendary performance.

Some reviewers are calling the performance "iconic" and rightfully so. I'm prepared to say this is Daniel Day-Lewis' greatest performance and one of the greatest performances in motion picture history. I am willing to put it on par with Robert De Niro's role as Jake LaMotta in 'Raging Bull' and Marlon Brando's portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather Part I.'

The film itself depicts Lincoln's final months in office before he was assassinated in April of 1865, just days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the North.

The country was in complete turmoil and at war with itself. And, the government was divided. The Civil War was bound to end, but Lincoln wanted to get the Thirteenth Amendment to pass through Congress, which would make slavery illegal. In some ways the movie parrallels the political situation of today, but slavery is a far more damning black eye upon our nation than issues like our federal deficit. Slavery was one of the biggest  disgraces in human history and barbaric. Abraham Lincoln was not going to back down from ending slavery, even if he had to sacrifice his own presidency.

Throughout the movie, Lincoln tells colorful stories and parables to his rank and file such as his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill).

Spielberg and Day-Lewis were able to brilliantly convey that this man wasn't just a president, he was a man of immense conviction who had principles which transcended politics and war.

In the beginning of the movie Lincoln meets with soldiers personally and a young man recounts to him part of the Gettysburg address. A fellow soldier even demands better pay for African American soldiers. The President isn't too big to take time out of his day to listen to anyone, especially men who are willing to give life and limb for the war effort. Lincoln was an ultimate "we-person" - a man from working class roots who never forgot where he came from.

A very funny moment of the movie occured when Lincoln recounted a story about war hero Ethan Allen who went over to England following the American victory in the Revolutionary War. His British associates tried to play a prank on Allen by hanging a portrait of George Washington in the only outhouse he would use. When they asked Allen what he thought of it, he responded that it was an "appropriate" place for his likeness. "There is nothing to make an an Englishman shit faster than the site of George Washington" - which is an actual quote.

President Lincoln was a very busy man obviously, but one who still had time for his family. Sally Field played his wife Mary Todd, who was able to work the crowds inside the Whitehouse, but behind closed doors she was haunted by the death of their son and wasn't about to let their oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fight in the Civil War. Lincoln accosts his son about his interest in joining the Army and tells him he'll need his permission to get in. Robert doesn't want to hear any of it and insists he'll join the war effort. His father makes sure he'll have a "safe" job running messages for Ulysses S. Grant. He conveys this to Mary Todd, but she is far from convinced their son will remain out of harm's way.

There are many tremendous performances in Lincoln. James Spader was great in his role as W.N. Bilbo, who was a deal-maker. President Lincoln was willing to even make some dirty deals to get twenty Democrats in the House to vote in favor of the bill. David Strathairn was great as William Seward, who was Lincoln's Secretary of State. It's interesting that Vice President Andrew Johnson didn't have any presence in this film. Lincoln's right hand man was Secretary of State William Seward. He also had a great working relationship with General Ulysses S. Grant, who was played by Jared Harris.

A very touching scene occurs towards the end of the film when Grant and Lincoln are sitting on a porch following the decimation of a stronghold in Virginia. They know the war is over and Grant tells Lincoln that he looks as though he as aged 10 years in the past year. Grant puts his hand on Thaddeus StevensLincoln's hand and holds it. These weren't just co-workers or confidants, they were dear friends.

Tommy Lee Jones also delivered a remarkable performance as Thaddeus Stevens, the legendary Representative from Lancaster, PA who was a radical abolitionist. Much like President Lincoln, Stevens was prepared to make any sacrifice it took to get the 13th Amendment to pass. At one point he had to virtually lie about his position and admit that he was not in favor of equal rights for all people, but rather affording them equal rights as it stands to law. He knew he had to play the game and not appear too radical so they could win favor of some of the more moderate Democrats.

Democratic Representative Fernando Wood was portrayed by Lee Pace very well. Wood and Stevens had many verbal battles during this tumultuous time. Wood was an ardant supporter of slavery and a despicable man. It's no surpise that he was part of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York, arguably the most corrupt in the history of the United states.

On the day of the vote, the Democratic opponents tried to have the vote postponed because of a possible peace deal from the Confederate delegates, who were rumored to be in Washington. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) ran their asses off to deliver the message to the President about the vote being postponed. Lincoln told his messengers to inform the members of Congress that there was no peace deal in the works and the rumors of the delegates being in the Capital was a hoax. Even though he knew this could mean he would be impeached, he was prepared to lie.

Again, anything was on the table for Lincoln. This wasn't about breaking the rules or simply playing the political game. This was about affording life, liberty, and prosperity for all Americans, regardless of their race.

If you haven't had a chance to see 'Lincoln' then I recommend you get out there ASAP and see it. Daniel Day-Lewis' body of work is impeccable. From his portrayal of author/painter Christy Brown in 'My Left Foot', to ruthless gang leader Bill "The Butcher" Cutting in Martin Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York', to oil man Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood' - he has made his indelible mark on Hollywood. He will likely be the leading contender for his third Academy Award in 2013. Should he win, he will become one of the top 5 actors who ever lived.

He's already the greatest actor of this generation, but we may be saying his performance in Lincoln was the greatest in history twenty years from now.

Contact Dennis Bakay at dbakay@philly2philly.com

Photos from Dreamworks

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