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updated: 11/8/2012 3:16 PM

Daniel Day-Lewis' performance outshines Spielberg's direction in 'Lincoln'

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  • The U.S. President (Daniel Day-Lewis) surveys a Union vs. Confederacy battlefield in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

      The U.S. President (Daniel Day-Lewis) surveys a Union vs. Confederacy battlefield in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."

  • President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) discusses passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery in Steven Spielberg's drama "Lincoln."

      President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) discusses passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery in Steven Spielberg's drama "Lincoln."

  • Video: LINCOLN trailer

 
 

"Lincoln" represents the first time that a Steven Spielberg movie will be remembered not for the filmmaker's signature flair for direction, but for the astonishing, destined-to-be-classic performance of its main star.

Oscar-winning Brit Daniel Day-Lewis tackles the riskiest role of his celebrated career as the 16th president of the United States, a historical figure who still looms large in our national psyche, and is still so cherished that the slightest misjudgment in his portrayal could significantly ding a career.

He conjures up a quiet, introspective man with a penchant for spinning anecdotes laced with political points -- modern-day parables for politicians immune to frontal assaults on their beliefs.

He speaks in a voice far from wispy, yet higher in timbre than you might imagine, and deeply steeped in folksy earnestness.

To say that Day-Lewis gets it right wouldn't be accurate, because nobody really knows how Abraham Lincoln sounded as an orator. (For an amazing look at how the actor discovered Lincoln's voice, go to the YouTube video at bit.ly/Tadti8.)

So, Day-Lewis' performance, even if it's not historically accurate, feels right. It sounds right. So it is right, at least for his portrayal of an aging president fighting against overwhelming political opposition to ban slavery.

It doesn't take long before we realize that "Lincoln" isn't the staid Hollywood biography of the Illinois rail splitter we expected it to be.

No, Spielberg treats this like an old-fashioned war movie, except this is a war of ideas. It's all about strategy, persuasive tactics and bartering for votes as we glimpse the political animal lurking under Lincoln's gentlemanly facade.

Wisely, Tony Kushner's screenplay -- based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" -- focuses narrowly on the president's life in 1865.

That's when, during the waning months of the Civil War, he spearheads a campaign to pass the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. He does so against a fierce contingency dead-set against the Northerner meddling in states' rights and threatening to destroy the economic structure of the South.

The guys in Lincoln's corner make the pols in George Clooney's "Ides of March" look like rank amateurs.

The president has Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) as his closest, cautious adviser.

Not so cautious is Republican representative Thaddeus Stevens, a political bullfighter played by Tommy Lee Jones. (Ironically, Jones' performance as the bombastic, wig-wearing, clubfooted abolitionist nearly steals the movie from Day-Lewis.)

Stevens takes on the Democrats, such as Lee Pace's posturing Fernando Wood and Peter McRobbie's George Pendleton, as the president enlists the aid of an unsavory trio dispatched to buy votes for the amendment however they can. (They are riotously played by Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader and John Hawkes.)

"Lincoln" amounts to a visual oddity for Spielberg, who opts to make his feature not a cinematically inspired work, but a virtual chamber play captured on film.

Shot by his longtime collaborator, Columbia College grad Janusz Kaminski, "Lincoln" barely leaves stuffy rooms, then overdoses on rushing close-ups as if to compensate for the story's conservative, TV-like visual treatment.

In between the Civil War and the political battle, we glimpse Lincoln's intense personal life, his marriage to a headstrong Mary Todd (a plucky Sally Field) still suffering from the death of one child and firmly opposed to allowing her other one, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to enlist for the Union army.

Weirdly enough, these slow and personal vignettes make the political chess game in Congress all that more exciting, with a political climax as effective and moving as any sports movie ever made.

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