When artists depict Abraham Lincoln, it's easy either to be flippant about his legend or create a portrait that's as reverential and immobile as a statue.
It's the supreme accomplishment of "Lincoln" that director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis avoid falling into both traps. They have created a portrait of America's greatest president (somebody argue against me, I dare you) that evokes his larger-than-life image while also showing us the flesh-and-blood man behind the myth.
Spielberg captures Lincoln's life not with an exhaustive biopic, but by taking the focus of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals to narrow in on the president's last months. It's early 1865, the bloody Civil War is nearly done and the Confederacy is on its last legs. With the war winding down and newly elected legislators arriving in March, Lincoln sees a narrow window to push the 13th Amendment the complete abolition of slavery through a lame-duck Congress. (The fact that we are now living in a lame-duck era with an embattled and freshly re-elected president from Illinois gives the movie a serendipitous resonance.)
Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") show Lincoln's deft political skills as he works the system in all directions. On the surface, he plays the statesman while his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), hires three shady lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to wheedle outgoing lawmakers with patronage jobs and secret favors. Within the House, the ardently pro-equality Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is forced to hold his tongue against the recalcitrant Democrats, led by New York Rep. Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), who would just as soon allow the Southern states back into the Union with slavery laws intact.
Lincoln's main gift of persuasion is a knack for finding the perfect anecdote to further his argument, a talent that drives his frustrated War Secretary Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) out of the room in frustration. But Day-Lewis' astonishing performance employing a reedy, weathered Illinois voice of a pre-soundbite generation finds the razor-sharp political mind behind the folksy talk. Day-Lewis also depicts a man grieving over the Civil War dead and his son Willie two years earlier, and weary from the strain those deaths have placed on his marriage to the fragile Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field).
And while Spielberg sets up tableaux that hint at Lincoln's mythology (our first glimpse of Day-Lewis' Lincoln, as he's meeting troops in the field, makes it look as if he already is posing for the Lincoln Memorial), the movie's most compelling action is the give-and-take within the political debate. The legislative thriller is a genre that's seldom seen in the age of C-Span, but Spielberg creates one as riveting as the classic of the form, Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent."
Day-Lewis' signature performance may get all the attention, but he's not alone among the cast's heavy hitters. Field brings an air of poignancy to the first lady's loneliness, and a touch of steel in a confrontation with Stevens. Jones, as Stevens, electrifies every time he gets up to speak. Also look out for Hal Holbrook as a cagey old lawmaker, Jackie Earle Haley as the Confederate vice president, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son Robert, and Gloria Reuben as Mrs. Lincoln's servant, Mrs. Keckley who serves as the embodiment of the human stakes of this political fight.
Only toward the end of "Lincoln" and everyone knows how this story ends does Spielberg succumb to the myth-making impulse. By then, Day-Lewis' full-bodied performance has worked its magic, showing the passion, charm and grace that made Lincoln the icon he has become.
Director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis collaborate on an astonishingly human portrait of the 16th president.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 16.
Rating • PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
Running time • 149 minutes.