Somewhere between the "Indiana Jones" movies, "Jurassic Park" and "Minority Report," Steven Spielberg became known as a master of spectacle -- a director who could shape stories around imaginative, detailed worlds.
What many people forget, however, is that Spielberg also does quite well with historical dramas and personalities. If you need a refresher, check out the incredibly powerful "Schindler's List," the captivating "Saving Private Ryan" or the underrated "Munich." Spielberg has proven time and time again that he can bring history to life and direct a cast to a tremendous performance.
With "Lincoln," he's done it again.
Though historians may gripe, every choice that Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis make about the character of Abraham Lincoln lends dignity and honor to the most-praised president in our nation's history. From Hollywood veterans like Sally Field, James Spader and Tommy Lee Jones to TV supporting men like David Costabile, John Hawkes and Lee Pace, no performance leaves anything to be desired. While "Lincoln" may not offer many visual thrills or gruesome battle scenes, it's most certainly the best-acted film of 2012.
Anyone who enjoyed "The King's Speech" two years ago should buy their tickets to "Lincoln" now.
"Lincoln" also succeeds because Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner don't try to do too much with one film. Rather than making a true biopic that encompasses Lincoln's entire life, the two chose to focus on his final months. Most of the film unfolds in January 1865, shortly after Lincoln's re-election, when it's all but certain that the North will win the Civil War. The real battle for him now is the fight against slavery. Three commissioners from the Confederacy head up to Washington, and Lincoln feels confident that he'll have their surrender within a week. But he is driven to pass the 13th Amendment, which would outlaw slavery (Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was merely an executive order he declared two years earlier, but it was not a law passed by Congress) before he'll accept their surrender.
The Democrats hate the amendment and even Lincoln's liberal Republican comrades -- men like Preston Blair (played by the great Hal Holbrook) -- want him to delay the vote. Only Lincoln seems to realize the stakes: That once the Civil War is over, the amendment will be blocked by the Southern states. Winning the war could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory, but if he passes the amendment before accepting the surrender of the Confederacy, he can truly alter the course of history.
"Lincoln" weaves together a great deal of sassy and sophisticated speech-making on the floor of the Senate, as brazen insults give way to complex debates of morality. As the congressional fight rages on, Lincoln brilliantly maneuvers around it. He plays beggar. He plays seducer. He plays tyrant. He bribes Democratic senators who support slavery with patronage jobs. He courts but also softens the influence of curmudgeony Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones at his finest), the abolitionist who's so staunchly for the end of slavery that he might alienate any undecided senator.
Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Lincoln is one of a working-class hero, a master of persuasion and one of America's greatest orators. It's some of the decorated actor's best work to date. Spielberg frames his performance with very little. We often see Lincoln in the drab meeting rooms of the White House or in his bedroom with the tortured, legitimately crazy Mary Todd Lincoln (Field), who still blames Abe for the death of their third son. Spielberg keeps the backdrops simple and lets the courageous cast do its thing.
By the film's end, you don't feel as if you know more about the life of Lincoln or even the man's own psyche. That's no surprise. Few in his own time claimed to know him well. However, you do get the feeling that you know what it was like to be in his presence. And, man, that feeling is priceless.
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