By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Lincoln is a somewhat misleading title for Steven Spielberg's new movie, but "Good actors debating slavery in distracting whiskers and wigs" wouldn't fit on theater marquees.
This isn't an Abraham Lincoln biography per se, and that might be a good thing since highlights of our 16th president's life are so familiar. Spielberg believes so, focusing only on the final three months of Lincoln's presidency when he played all of his political cards, sometimes against each other, to obtain Congressional approval of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.
The period allows Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner to compress Lincoln's qualities as a canny politician, weary leader and folksy guy into a single drama pulled from a career of many. They certainly have an impressive vessel to make their points in Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal, a marvel of physical resemblance and thoughtful acting choices. You could probably pass a counterfeit $5 bill with his picture on it without much trouble.
Yet this is one of Spielberg's least Spielberg-y movies, a stuffy, didactic enterprise keeping audiences at arm's length (and Lincoln was a rangy dude). We observe but seldom become involved. Lincoln is dutifully attentive to the minutiae of divisive Civil War politics — and comparisons to today — but barely scrapes the emotion roiling beneath such heated dialogue.
Leading the good fight is firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, the worst wig casualty), whose sarcastic barbs directed at opponents are the movie's sole comic relief. Many congressmen want the Confederacy crushed as punishment for seceding from the union. That would essentially end slavery's practice but not its immorality, which is what Lincoln is most concerned about. With the war's end approaching, the amendment must pass before there's no political reason for it.
Kushner covers every step of the gridlock-breaking process, from a trio of White House lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) offering perks for votes, to frequent appeals to consciences. Spielberg seems aware that this wordy material is better suited to the stage, directing cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to lock down his camera, keeping the movement minimal, occasionally to the brink of stasis.
Lincoln is like a thoroughly researched poli-sci term paper come to life, with interesting personal material about the participants relegated to footnotes. Like the thorny relationship between Lincoln and his chronically depressed wife, Mary, well played by Sally Field, or Stevens' intimate stake in abolition that's merely an "a-ha" moment at the climax.
Spielberg so intently avoids making Lincoln merely a biopic that his subject is even assassinated off-screen. We get Day-Lewis' excellent impersonation of Lincoln, a handsomely designed period piece and more loquacious insight into 19th century cloakroom politics than a ticket price should buy.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.