At the end of February Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor at long last. That was for his role in The Revenant, where he played the hardy frontiersman Hugh Glass, and it was an award that I questioned not because of an absence of quality in his performance, but for his relative lack of dialogue. It was all a matter of whether he had been given material of the quantity that such an honour demands.
It was an Academy Award winning role that contrasted hugely with that of the recipient in 2013, Daniel Day-Lewis. He won the accolade for a record third time for playing US president Abraham Lincoln, where there was no shortage of dialogue for him to sift through. The movie contains a multitude of monologues, many of which see Lincoln reciting worn anecdotes, something which Day-Lewis performs with a unique world-weary charisma.
The story centres around the final months of the American civil war, where recently re-elected Lincoln is trying to push through the Thirteenth Amendment to the US constitution, culminating in a vote in the House of Representatives. The amendment involves the proposed abolition of slavery in the southern states, the implementation of which would effectively put an end to the conflict, and Lincoln uses his craft and that of his trusted associates to secure the votes of several soon-to-be unseated democrats.
Lincoln has a tough time convincing several members of his cabinet that seeing the amendment passed has to be done successfully by the beginning of February 1865. Day-Lewis conveys his stressed yet saintly demeanour perfectly, speaking with assertive authority when called upon and acting as an occasionally easy-going champion of the people. Throughout every scene containing the title character – and there are many – he carries an aura of shrewdness and political stealth.
It is a movie based around dialogue, whether it be Lincoln’s constant outpouring of wisdom or the powerful rhetoric of Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), or the understated remarks of Secretary of State William H Seward (David Strathairn). The power of the spoken word is the driving force, resonating with its viewers and implying that the utterance of just a select few words can help shape opinions on a national scale, and in this case make the vital contribution that puts an end to the fighting.
A massive amount of the credit for this has to go to screenwriter David Kushner, who put a lot of painstaking work into discovering the essence of what Lincoln stood for and what kind of man he was, as well as the attitudes and behaviours of the House of Representatives during the civil war.
So much has been written about Lincoln, but he must have been such a difficult man to capture with a high degree of accuracy, which makes the achievements of Kushner even more considerable. It is a script that a lot of hours would have gone into producing, with the use of as much source material he could find. The movie contains so many characters of varying philosophies and complex personalities, so Kushner us very much the man primarily responsible for creating a movie that was released to universal critical acclaim.
What impresses me most about the script as that it does not try to make the source material appear overly dramatic or exaggerated. It is far from a thriller, but it is not meant to be a thriller. I would describe it more as a theatrical documentary that uses a historical sequence of events to tell a story with eloquence and great intelligence.
As for Day-Lewis, he shows exactly why many regard him to be the greatest living actor. The manner of which he uses his material to create a lasting impression was masterful, and each of his many lines was spoken with total clarity and authenticity. For anybody who wishes to understand the benchmark that any actor should aspire to, they should watch Lincoln. The committee that decided on the 2013 Academy Award for Best Actor must have looked at Day-Lewis’ performance and thought something along the lines of, ‘This is a total non-contest’.