A lot has been written about Abraham Lincoln in the nearly 150 years since his death, to the point where you have to wonder if there is anything that hasn’t already been said. After nearly a decade of trying, Steven Spielberg‘s long-awaited look at the 16th President is going to try and ultimately comes up with this: Lincoln was definitely a politician, but was also probably a man.

Not a traditional biopic in any way, Spielberg’s Lincoln is a focused look at the activity of the last several months of his life. Specifically the activity around the pass of the 13th Amendment through Congress and the preparations for its ratification, which would ultimately and finally end slavery in America.

It’s an extremely narrowly-focused view of the President’s life, one which occasionally widens to take in his activities as a husband and father and commander-in-chief and even more occasionally the fact of the war he is trying to end. But not often, as Tony Kushner‘s (Angels in America) screenplay — loosely adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s Team of Rivals — eschews grandeur for quaintness, creating a film which like a play more often than not. A play which rarely leaves the West Wing of the White House.

Most often, it is concerned with the processes and political rivalries of 1860s Washington in a way which would likely thrill a history professor but could risk boring or at least losing any other audience. In Spielberg’s hands, however, and with the assistance of Kushner and his well-chosen cast, the effect is generally engrossing, as Spielberg throws off his normal focus on visual opulence in favor of what really is a well-staged play.

At its center, naturally, is Lincoln himself. There is a great tendency among Lincoln stories to turn towards hagiography. Some will from time to time search out the true man in the icon, but can risk going too far in the other direction and attempt to demonize him unnecessarily.

Spielberg’s Lincoln tries to work the middle ground between the two, but it can’t help coming down on the side of Lincoln the Saint most of the time, painting him as a font of wisdom who flits about the White House dispensing the wisdom of the ages as he pokes and prods men to do the right thing and tries to keep his hands clean in the process.

In Daniel Day-Lewis‘s hands, however, it works. In voice, in stature, in the pained looks he constantly gives out to the world and the hope he carries, his performance feels as close as we might get to actually viewing Lincoln ourselves. Not counting that robot at Disney World, anyway. It’s without question the best performance of the year so far.

Neither he nor Spielberg are afraid of showing his occasionally violent nature, as he occasionally lashes out when the pressures of family life — on top of running a war — become too much. Particularly too much as everyone in his family, from wife Mary (Sally Field) to son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), are still suffering from the open wound of his oldest son’s death some years earlier.

Field, in the small number of scenes she gets, does her best to hold her own, but it is impossible not to notice how much better she is in the small moments of quiet madness, such as when she dresses down Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in front of a White House party, than when she falls to screeching. Jones himself often seems the only person who can hold the screen with Day-Lewis (despite only having a couple of scenes with him), as he relishes and only occasionally overacts some of the best dialogue of his career.

And this is ultimately an actor’s film, from Day-Lewis’s towering performance to the legion of character actors filling the ranks of Washington politicians he must convince and cajole. Unique for a Spielberg film, the director mostly takes a back seat to let his characters do the talking, only rarely giving in to some of his patent manipulation, such as a visit to an army hospital, or the vote on the Amendment itself, where the entire roll of Congress is called and stretched out. It still suffers from some problems typical of modern Spielberg, particularly his inability to decide on an ending, but for the most part, he gets out of his own way, and it works.

Lincoln may be too procedural, too stagey, and too character-driven for those looking for easy entertainment or the more typical Spielberg experience. But look below the surface, and you’ll find not just one of his better dramatic attempts from the past decade (far superior to the Kushner-co-written Munich), but one of the best-acted films of the year.

Cast: Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln; Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens; David Strathairn as William Seward; Lee Pace as Fernando Wood; Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln; Gulliver McGrath as Tad Lincoln; Joseph Cross as John Hay; Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blaire; James Spader as William N. Bilboe; John Hawkes as Robert Latham; Tim Blake Nelson as Richard Schell; Walton Goggins as Wells A. Hutchins; Gloria Reuben as Elisabeth Keckley; Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander H. Stephens; Gregory Itzin as John Archibald Campbell; Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant.

(DreamWorks Studios --; Touchstone Pictures; 20th Century Fox --; Reliance Entertainment; Participant Media --; Amblin Entertainment; The Kennedy/Marshall Company --; Lincoln --; Lincoln (Facebook) --

Review by . Review posted Tuesday, November 13th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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