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Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln in a scene from “Lincoln”

David James/The Associated Press

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Tony Kushner
Directed by
Steven Spielberg
Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field

Lincoln is directed by Steven Spielberg but, to his great credit, few will mistake this for a Steven Spielberg film. Rather, it's a Tony Kushner film, the playwright who conjured up the wordy but intricately layered script; and it's a Daniel Day-Lewis film, the actor who so richly embodies the iconic title role. With a few exceptions, Spielberg reins in his kinetic flair, stays his sentimental impulses, and mutes his methods to match the material. Which is? A dramatized political essay, essentially, and, although the Civil War is still spilling copious blood, the picture mainly confines its focus to what politicians do. Yes, this is a movie about people talking in rooms. And the talk, at its best, fascinates.

Unfortunately, those few exceptions frame the movie. The opening sequence, a bayonet slaughter punctuated by a black soldier reciting the Gettysburg Address to his patiently listening President, does not augur well. Neither does the near-concluding scene, a gimmicky twist on assassination night at the theatre. But most everything in between, about 21/2 hours worth, sees the narrative settle down smartly to its appointed and narrowly defined task: capturing the events, in January of 1865, that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Like the war itself, that political battle was fought on multiple fronts and, again like the war, it reflected the multiple facets of the commander-in-chief's nature – his better angels, to be sure, but his worse too. This, then, is where Kushner and Day-Lewis shine.

Let's start with the playwright, who has fashioned the screenplay as a series of intense conversations – Lincoln with a pair of Northern petitioners; with his former rival and now Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn); with his cabinet at large; with Thaddeus Stevens the ferociously cranky abolitionist (Tommy Lee Jones); with his haranguing and sharp-tongued wife Mary (Sally Field); with a trio of lobbyists assigned to buy Democratic votes in the House; with Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) packed off secretly to negotiate with the secessionists; and, not least, with his soliloquizing self. In lesser hands, all this chatter would have played like clumsy exposition, but Kushner has a subtle touch. So, amid the constant exchange of words, often subdued, sometimes fierce, the complexity of the politics arises organically and, rare in film, with the nuance undamaged.

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That nuance is crucial, because the central tension here is between two equally valuable pursuits that circumstance has rendered, for the moment, mutually exclusive: ending the war before the "spring slaughter" and passing the amendment before a riven Congress. Conclude the war too quickly and the political will for the amendment will dissipate. However, pass the amendment and it may fuel the South's resolve to continue the war. Stop the killing or free the slaves, peace now or justice now – each is an absolute good, and each is an extremely thorny, hugely pragmatic issue that begs for relative compromise. Neatly, then, the clichés of politics compete with the urgings of conscience, the "art of the possible" with "by any means necessary." Clearly, that struggle resonates through the years right into today's White House.

On to Day-Lewis's work, which proves to be another exemplary balancing act. Thanks to him, the political essay is grounded in a character study, just as nuanced. With that famously weathered face and a tall man's stooped gait, his Lincoln is a man of many parts – a keen legal mind that delights in its Byzantine twists; an aggrieved husband; a compassionate father; a cold prosecutor of the war; a sensitive pardoner of deserters; a melancholic, curt and silent; a humorist, gregarious spinner of windy anecdotes. This latter knack lightens the film with surprising bursts of comedy, but it's Day-Lewis's ability to juggle all these conflicting facets that keeps us riveted to him. In such a large ensemble cast, there are performances arresting (from Jones) and questionable (from Field). However, at the still centre, Day-Lewis is a marvel of quiet containment and a walking-talking paradox, solid steel tempered with gentleness, sad even when happy, measured in anger and triumph alike.

As for Spielberg, despite that ill-advised beginning and a few lurches from bright comedy into laboured farce, he wisely hides behind the script, contenting himself with tableaux of speckled light refracted through dusty windows. His best kinetic flourish is his most restrained: a tracking shot of a wheelbarrow on a daily journey from hospital ward to adjoining grounds, where its heavy load – a tangled mass of amputated limbs – is unceremoniously dumped.

Appropriately, though, it's Lincoln we keep returning to with rapt attention, no more so than when, on the eve of the amendment's passage, he pauses to address his household's black seamstress and, from his imperious height, speaks with an unvarnished honesty stripped free of any sentimentality: "You have a right to expect what I expect.… But what will become of you I do not know." Mere months later, over his shot and prostrate body, that question lingers. Centuries later, from the Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights Act, from the Harlem renaissance to the New Orleans disaster, from George Wallace to Barack Obama, it lingers still.

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