Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal as President Abe Lincoln is a virtuoso performance that rightly won the Best Actor Oscar in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). But DDL’s portrayal is made more powerful not because the film showed the myth of the man but also the deeply personal and flawed nature of the protagonist.
I want to talk about 3 scenes that I feel were particularly revealing in terms of the artist’s attempt to flesh out the character.
The first scene shows the kind of personal dialogues that can take place between husbands and wives. Other than the fact that Lincoln is trying hard to convince Mary Todd that stopping their son to enlist in the war would be a futile effort, the scene also reveals a dark undertone regarding their relationship wife when Mary accuse her husband of finding an excuse to commit her into a mental institution if she does not acquiesce to reason. The scene contains three revealing information about their relationship. (1) Lincoln is not supposedly this mythic and saintly person. He suffers from the same issues as most people would in their relationship. (2) Mary accuses Abe of blaming her and Robert in trapping him in their marriage. (3) As parents – even as leaders – they are rightly concerned about the health and safety of their son.
The second scene shows the psychological and psychic toll on war. Even though this could have been a scene that shows the victors celebrating and congratulating themselves over their victory, it is played out in a somber and even regretful tone (aided by the melancholic score). The cinematography employs a desaturated and light blue tint to the image. The visuals are helped by the dark and muddy tones of the production design – namely in terms of the costumes and sets design.
There is an interesting use of light and shadow in the section where Lincoln and Grant are sitting together to discuss their plans for their future. The flickering light and shadows – supposedly of soldiers riding past on their horses – washes across Lincoln’s face imply and foreshadow the onset of weariness and exhaustion. The shadows, in my opinion, lends a sense of melancholy and in a more poetic sense – the “souls” that was lost to the war – and the “soul” that awaits the protagonists in the afterlife.
Apart from showing the softer side of our protagonist, Lincoln the film also showed his wisdom and intelligence in several scenes. One of the more instructive scene of Lincoln’s smarts is contained in the dialogue that takes place between Lincoln and Stephens in the cellar.
Thaddeus Stevens: The people elected me to represent them, to lead them, and I lead. You ought to try it.
Abraham Lincoln: I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it. But if I’d listened to you, I’d have declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter. Then the border states would’ve gone over to the Confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.
Thaddeus Stevens: Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them, but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country’s infinite abundance with Negroes.
Abraham Lincoln: A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing true north?
And that’s why he is who he is…