‘Lincoln’ brings Honest Abe to life

It’s a foreign concept today, but once upon a time, U.S. politicians from both sides of the aisle came together to pass legislation that forever changed the course of America.

Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln.”

True, the path to the ratification of the 13th Amendment was paved with cronyism, back-room deals, coercion and truth-stretching, but it was worth it, because we got the abolishment of slavery out of it, right?

That’s the message in “Lincoln,” the soul-stirring new biopic by Steven Spielberg.

“Lincoln,” based partially on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s nonfiction book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” covers the final months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, beginning in January 1865.

At that time, as the Civil War waned, Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, finds himself in a dilemma: Lincoln, who wants the 13th Amendment to pass because he believes in it, is portraying it as a way to end the war. However, the war is close to ending anyway, and Confederate emissaries are on their way to Washington to discuss a negotiated truce.

If the war ends before the amendment is voted on, it will surely fail, because a lot of the country and its Congress don’t actually want blacks to be legally equal to whites. But if Lincoln and his political allies can hold off the Confederate negotiators and turn enough votes their way before the deadline, they’ll make history.

Anyone who paid attention in history class knows what happened, of course, but it doesn’t really detract from the sense of urgency in the movie, which does a really good job of making political debate among men with waistcoats and beards compelling and entertaining. Tony Kushner’s script includes both moving speeches by men passionate about their political positions and plenty of amusing 19th-century insults.

I can’t overstate the quality of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance. Like he usually does for his roles, Day-Lewis did extensive research and stayed in character nearly all the time while filming “Lincoln,” and it pays off: About halfway through the movie, I stopped seeing Day-Lewis and only saw Lincoln. I doubt the Academy will give him a third Best Actor Oscar, but it’s certainly a performance deserving of one.

Many of the secondary male actors, including Tommy Lee Jones as Senator Thaddeus Stevens and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, are also excellent. The supporting cast includes a large number of character actors, but I won’t mention them because it’s fun to recognize them as the movie progresses (I call it playing a round of “Who’s Under That Beard?”).

The one misstep in casting is Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Her acting is good, but she just turned 66 and in “Lincoln,” she looks it. She’s unbelievable as the mother of a son who can’t be more than 12.

I overheard members of the preview audience complaining that “Lincoln” was “cheesy” (their words, not mine), to which I say: This is Spielberg! What did you expect, cynicism? Spielberg’s work is always good-hearted, always straightforward, always values-oriented. “Lincoln” is no different. And that’s not a bad thing. As I sat in the theater and watched “Lincoln” the week before the election, I was proud of my country. And I couldn’t wait to go vote.

“Lincoln” opens today (Friday, Nov. 9). Check out the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJVuqYkI2jQ, then go see it.

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