Movies: "Lincoln" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Lincoln"
Movies: "Lincoln"


Four great talents came together for the making of “Lincoln”:  Steven Spielberg, surely America’s greatest contemporary filmmaker;  playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote “Angels in America” as well as the screenplay for Spielberg’s 2005 movie “Munich”;  historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book “Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” formed the basis for Kushner’s script;  and Daniel Day Lewis, who seems to have been born to play Abraham Lincoln.


There are lesser talents on display here as well, several of whom add juice to the 1865 business of getting the 13th Amendment through a divided House of Representatives while the Civil War still rages.  


There’s Tommy Lee Jones as the bewigged abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens;  David Strathairn as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward;  Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, still grieving the death of her son three years earlier;  and Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, whose efforts to bring a Confederate peace delegation to Washington threaten passage of the amendment that will end slavery.


But better than all those A-List supporting players is none other than a plump, mustachioed James Spader, whose myriad roles have taken him from “Sex, Lies and Videotape” to “The Office” and “Boston Legal,” a personal  favorite.  God love him, he gives his characters real gusto.  Here, he is W.N. Bilbo, one of a trio of shady political operatives brought to the capital by Seward to bribe lame-duck Democrats with future patronage positions if they vote for abolition.


Daniel Day Lewis is long and lean, and looks startlingly like the photos of Lincoln in his final months of life.  He plays the 16th president with a reedy, midwestern voice, given to quoting Euclid, Shakespeare or the Bible -- or to recounting one colorful story after another, sometimes to the dismay of his cabinet.  It’s a great human performance, a far cry from the animatronic Lincolns we have all seen along the way.


Sally Field also delivers a strong performance as Lincoln’s highly-emotional helpmeet, sure, she thinks, to be remembered only as a crazy woman.  She gets one false-seeming scene at a White House reception in which she upbraids Thaddeus Stevens for trying to curtail her budget, but her best moment is a confrontation with her husband, in which both of them speak at the same time.


Cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky, who has shot most of Spielberg’s movies including “Saving Private Ryan,” gives us one scene of Civil War carnage at the start of the movie, but stays mostly indoors for the rest of the film, with scenes of political debate shot in sepia tones.  The few times we catch a glimpse of sunlight, or the capitol with its blue dome, come as a relief from the gaslit murk.  


At this time of Congressional gridlock, Spielberg has delivered a movie about American politics and how they can work.  Lincoln not only countenances the underhanded work of Bilbo and the boys, he courts individual Democrats himself, urging them to vote their conscience.  Is there a lesson here for Obama?


“Lincoln” is rated PG-13 for some language.  Bring your older kids to see it.  I give it an A.