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Lincoln (2012)

Drama Rated PG-13

It’s unfortunate that Lincoln is bookended with two scenes of awkward hagiography – both of which involve black servants of one type or another gazing worshipfully on the 16th president (Daniel Day-Lewis) – for in between is a movie of considerable more grit, tact and nuance.

A door-stopper from director Steven Spielberg, Lincoln is, in actuality, less of a biography piece than a gripping historical dramatization of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the waning days of the Civil War. (A more accurate title might have been 13.) This is much to the movie’s credit, for rather than a stodgy biopic ticking off the major events in its subject’s life, Lincoln allows us to learn about the man – the legislator, politician and president – through the nitty-gritty details of his defining accomplishment.

Perhaps that’s why Day-Lewis seems so refreshingly loose in the title role: he’s not carrying the film on his shoulders, because Lincoln is only obliquely about his character. It’s a hugely entertaining performance that emphasizes Lincoln’s lively intelligence, quick wit and genuine interest in the stories of others (he does a lot of holding of hands). As wonky as the movie often is – and much of it is taken up with scenes of bearded men engaged in political debate – it never grows dull because we have Day-Lewis as our genial political-science professor.

Not that this Lincoln is all lightness. When he’s not regaling his Cabinet with pointed stories, another side appears, the one that has been at war for years, lost a young son and has a wife (an excellent Sally Field) struggling with depression. Here we get not the volcanic Day-Lewis we’ve come to expect – the full-body presence of There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York and My Left Foot – but rather a worn, weary version of him. It’s Day-Lewis covered in volcanic ash.

Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski employ a similarly grim visual scheme. The rooms here are smoky and dour; when light seeps in through the windows, it’s dim and sepia-toned. I imagine the set had the feel of a living-history museum, those places that exist in the present but have the real chill and sooty walls of years ago.

The point of those museums, of course, is to keep history from being stuffy, something at which Lincoln greatly succeeds. By the time the roll call for the vote on the amendment comes about, Spielberg has so embroiled us in the lengths Lincoln has gone to in order to gain its passage – the cajoling of allies, the bribing of enemies, the threatening of others – that the mere reading of names and recording of responses carries intense suspense. It’s astonishing to be reminded that such a momentous shift in American history came down to an actual vote, and Spielberg the master tactician wrings drama out of every “aye” and “nay.”

Of course, Spielberg has always had a problem with keeping that mastery in check. And so the bombastic approach that works so well in the voting sequence is also employed in other, more unfortunate moments, most of which involve Lincoln and African-Americans. When a pair of black soldiers got a pep talk from the president in the opening scene, I felt a quiver of misgivings; when one of them began to recite the Gettysburg address in a quavering voice, I nearly gave up.

Slavery – by necessity of the movie’s narrative focus – largely exists on the outskirts of the film, so perhaps a moment like this was Spielberg’s attempt to bring the issue to the forefront. But slavery is too big, too complicated, too awful to receive such direct, Spielbergian treatment. In Lincoln, it’s better dealt with in the shadows. This includes the early photographs of slaves that Tad, Lincoln’s young son, studies with morbid fascination in the dim light of the White House fireplace. It’s a small but ghostly scene, and among Lincoln’s best touches. For all the bravura moments in his cinema, it’s often Spielberg’s little asides that haunt us the most.