We’ve had more than 100 years of people playing Abraham Lincoln on screen, from the work of movie pioneer D.W. Griffith through the eyebrow-raising proposition of “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.”
This leads to a couple of issues. How do you play a character so familiar? And how do you not play him as a larger-than-life American legend straight off Mount Rushmore?
Within the first five minutes of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” you have some of the answers to these questions. Maybe not the “how,” because it’s hard to fathom how Daniel Day-Lewis does his mysterious disappearing act into his characters.
However he does it, the unrecognizable Day-Lewis has beamed directly into a fascinating figure and brought him to credible, right-here-on-this-Earth life. High-pitched in his vocal effect, tall of bearing yet somehow hunched over, this Lincoln is a brilliant strategist with a calculating streak that does not negate his humanity.
Spielberg’s film, given a very literate script by Tony Kushner, is focused on a particular month in the life of the president. It’s January 1865, and Lincoln has just been re-elected for his second term in office.
The Civil War continues to bleed the country, but Lincoln has decided to spend his political capital on pushing the 13th amendment to the Constitution. This is the amendment abolishing slavery in the United States.
The fierce congressional arguments that surround this proposition, and the various levels of chess-playing and chicanery that attend it, make for an engrossing movie. At least they do to me. But maybe the movie is what the real Abraham Lincoln meant when he allegedly said, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”
It’s talky, for sure, and some of the talk is so rooted in a tangy 19th-century lingo that it’s occasionally hard to parse. Yet it sounds right.
Spielberg and Kushner take this Lincoln into some intriguing spots, especially in a marital dust-up with his mercurial wife (Sally Field, solid). The scene suggests that Lincoln is both an amateur psychiatrist and an existentialist before his time, ideas borne out by previous studies of Lincoln.
Day-Lewis captures the humor, too. Lincoln is, to the annoyance of his associates, a slow-drawling joke-teller, whose meaning is not always immediately apparent.
Those associates include his loyal secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathrairn), and the fiercely sarcastic anti-slavery congressman, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Jones’ role, by the way, is no mere cameo but a thundering moral compass for the movie, even when the movie suggests that compasses must be tweaked when aiming for a destination.
The rest of the cast is too long to detail, but they’re excellent. Spielberg makes one big mistake, in extending his film at least 10 minutes beyond the natural end of the story of the 13th Amendment. He can’t resist reaching for the big-canvas statement, but the most effective things in the picture are watching the process — and a remarkable American — work at a microscopic level.
“Lincoln” (3½ stars)
A literate, strategy-minded account of Abraham Lincoln’s plan to win congressional approval of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Steven Spielberg directs this as a dynamic conversation piece, anchored by an exceptional performance by an unrecognizable Daniel Day-Lewis.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, language.
Showing: Pacific Place.