Daniel Day-Lewis, Steven Spielberg bring ‘Lincoln’ to vivid life

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.

More in Life

This beefy ex-cop has a delicate hobby: intricate paper-cut art

You can see Tom Sacco’s creations at the upcoming Everett Art Walk.

Slow-roasted vegetables make sumptuous sauce for pasta

Make the basic but good spaghetti with red sauce blissfully better with this recipe.

Mocking meatloaf: One man’s loaf is another man’s poison

Some don’t like it and some do. Here are six meatloaf recipes to try.

Roasted Brussels sprouts can be the apple of picky eater’s eye

Toasted sesame seeds and diced apple add flavors that compliment the sprouts’ earthiness.

Arlington eagle fest wants your nature-themed artwork, haiku

Local residents of an artistic bent are invited to submit… Continue reading

Hau Tran sings as Vietnamese seniors eat at Homage’s Center for Healthy Living on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 in Lynnwood, Wa. Each weekday the center offers its room for various cultures to get together for activities and lunch while speaking their native languages. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Seniors of four cultures gather for food, fitness and fun

Homage’s Center for Healthy Living offers a venue for programs in the seniors’ native languages.

Ethnic communities eagerly await Lunar New Year on Feb. 16

By Homage Senior Services Ethnic communities around the world are getting eager… Continue reading

Kia Rio subcompact takes a classy step up in 2018

A new design, roomier cabin, and better fuel economy are among the improvements on the 2018 Kia Rio.

What’s new for 2018 for travelers in Scandinavia

Sweden, Norway and Finland have embarked on many urban, cultural and transit projects.

Most Read