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Entertainment & the Arts | November 9, 2012

A piece of history


Spielberg's Lincoln gives viewers a fresh look at the the fight to abolish slavery

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

Steven Spielberg's latest historical epic follows 16th President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he fights to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. He leads a Republican cabinet that must thread the political needle by gaining enough votes from their own party, and flipping a few Democrats, to pass the anti-slavery amendment. Most of the action shows Lincoln walking from room to room in the capitol as he pushes his vision for freedom.

Lincoln's entire cast--including Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, James Spader, David Strathairn and Joseph Gordon-Levitt--is outstanding. But this is clearly a vehicle for Day-Lewis, who has received standing ovations at advance screenings, and is already mentioned as a possible Oscar nominee. Jones plays Republican Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, who turns the tide in Lincoln's favor in the House of Representatives with his witty banter and brilliant political instincts. Stevens' wrangling gives Jones a chance to show off his own wit and comedic timing. Sally Field gained 25 pounds to play a Mary Todd Lincoln who has been considerably altered from the Mrs. Lincoln of history. Field is at the top of her game, but her scenes struggle to impact the story.

This is not a biopic on Lincoln. For one thing, it deviates from the historical record on several key points, including the revisionist depiction of Mrs. Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones' affable portrayal of Stevens also deviates from history. In reality, Stevens was a political knife-fighter who, as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, earned the nickname "The Dictator." But the movie excels at depicting the horse-trading of politics, and gives us a sense of the personalities involved.

Spielberg said he released the film after the election to avoid making a political statement. Of course, that decision is itself a political statement, as Lincoln's heroes are Republicans, an especially inconvenient truth for Democrats before the presidential election.

Anyone who knows high school history knows how this movie ends: Lincoln wins and slavery is abolished. At 2 hours and 25 minutes, it is too long, and except for a single brief battle scene (which, along with some rough language, earns the movie a PG-13 rating), the film offers minimal action.

Nonetheless, Spielberg manages to build suspense and reveal the humanity of iconic characters, people we think we already know, in a time of civil war and historic decisions. This Lincoln is worth every penny.