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Spielberg tames his tear-jerker instincts to deliver a timely political procedural.


If the phrase “Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln” conjures to mind a sweeping, cradle-to-casket hagiography of America’s Great Emancipator, steeped in stirring oratory and brimming with the director’s typical sentiment, the muddy bloodbath that begins the film quickly confounds such expectations. This prologue, depicting a mob of Union and Confederate soldiers scrabbling savagely in the mire, is utterly pitiful, and aptly sets the stage for the restrained, deromanticized portrait that follows.

As it happens, that portrait is less of Lincoln the man than the manoeuvring, cajoling, and bitter debate that constitutes politics itself—in his era as much as our own. Lincoln is effectively a political procedural, detailing the backroom machinations and bipartisan patronage that, despite fearsome opposition, produced the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment in the waning days of the Civil War. Here, that process proves nearly as mucky and as underhanded as the film’s opening skirmish, though the resulting legislation could hardly be more laudable.

Of course, as the animating force behind the amendment, Daniel Day-Lewis’ uncanny incarnation of the revered president remains a central figure. Shying away from the sort of larger-than-life performance that has been his recent stock-in-trade, the actor tailors his portrayal to Tony Kushner’s subtle, eloquent screenplay, delivering a fine performance that evokes the folksy, fiercely intelligent, and sometimes haunted humanity behind the icon.

More than a matter of verisimilitude, Lincoln‘s subversion of its subject’s mythical aura makes his methods and achievements vividly tangible, if no less impressive. It also lends the film a clear contemporary currency, suggesting that even the most rancorous partisan schisms are surmountable, given a leader possessed of the necessary gumption and guile.