Steven Spielberg's Lincoln must boast the largest collection of ornate facial hair styles of any 2012 movie (well, at least until The Hobbit hits theaters). Leo, you oversaw the recreation of history through beards and moustaches and follicular ornamentations, and your challenge was to do it without drawing so much attention to your work that it became a distraction. Lincoln could very easily have turned into the world's longest Portlandia sketch.
But it doesn't.
If I hadn't looked at the cast list after the film, I wouldn't have recognized half the actors who appear. Not entirely due to your handiwork, of course. Many of Lincoln's cast members disappear into their roles. This is not a film populated by stars and performances; it's populated by people.
Those cast members include Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Jared Harris, James Spader, John Hawkes, Walton Goggins. In a film that focuses on the abolishment of slavery, you might forgive me for expecting a lot of award-baiting scenery-chewing. Fortunately, everyone makes choices that serve the film instead of their Oscar nomination clip.
And then there's Daniel Day-Lewis.
I suppose at this stage in his career, I shouldn't be surprised when he commits so fully to a role. Intellectually, I knew that he was hiding somewhere under the make-up and Lincoln beard, but I'll be damned if saw him. Instead, I saw a man so fully realized that I was convinced the real Abraham Lincoln had to be like this. Who else but this sly, humble, and, surprisingly funny character could trick a dysfunctional Congress into doing his bidding? Like the rest of the cast, Day-Lewis opts to go small--to play Lincoln not as a bombastic orator, but as a humble, self-educated backwoods lawyer unsure of his new environment. He likes to be the centre of attention, make no mistake of that--but this Lincoln would just as soon tell a dirty joke as give an inspirational speech.
Now I know that the actors themselves didn't dictate your team's craft; that's a top-down decision, one that comes from the director. You might find it strange that I've gone this far without mentioning Steven Spielberg. He's kind of a big deal, so it's only natural that he be front and centre in any discussion of Lincoln. Here's the funny thing though: Spielberg doesn't put himself front and centre in the film.
This is one of the most restrained films Spielberg has ever made. I'm sure the grand spectacle of the civil war must have held a huge allure for a director of such legendary visual aptitude, but, apart from some brief (and brutal) bookend sequences on the battlefront, Lincoln is an entirely engrossing drama about process.. And even though Lincoln is filled with scenes of congressional grandstanding, not since E.T. has Spielberg used the silences between characters as effectively as he does here. In the few, quiet scenes we get between Lincoln and his youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), Spielberg creates as rich a father-son bond as I've seen in recent years.
Like Spielberg, you managed to avoid the pitfall of making the curled moustaches and chin-strap beards an amusing distraction (though Michael Stuhlbarg's beard is as ridiculous as his character). Working with this top-tier cast and crew, you managed to turn a dry civics lesson (with an ending everyone already knows) into one of the best films of the year.