Friday, November 30, 2012
Feature films about historical figures often make the dramatically deadly error of hewing too closely to a standard biographical format, forcing the audience to experience its subject from birth to death with all significant moments in between. Steven Spielberg’s latest prestige picture avoids that pitfall by focusing on a few weeks in early 1865. Shortly after re-election (as the Civil War began to wind painfully down and before the newly elected legislature takes office) President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) works behind the scenes to scrounge up votes in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, which will formally abolish slavery in the United States. This task, which Lincoln assigns to Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) who delegates same to brokers W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), is fraught with perils both political and physical. Not the least of these comes from within Lincoln’s own fractured Republican Party. Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the ostensible head of the conservative wing, assures the President that his caucus will deliver provided Lincoln negotiate terms with a Southern delegation that includes Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), Vice President of the Confederate States. The radical wing of the party, headed by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), has a less codified agenda and would react with despair to any peace negotiations prior to the amendment’s passage. Tony Kushner based his cogent, verbose script in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” and fashions these convoluted machinations into rollicking and moving political theatre. The usually manipulative Spielberg shows admirable restraint and has assembled one of the finest ensembles in recent memory, with Sally Field giving the much-maligned Mary Todd Lincoln a refreshing dose of humanity. But the film belongs to the triumphant Day-Lewis. He makes the revered, near mythical, figure so relatable and human, you could easily forget you’re watching a performance.