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Review: Steven Spielberg turns his love for Abraham Lincoln into a biopic for another polarized America

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Steven Spielberg has long admired the 16th president, recalling in the production notes of Lincoln the awe he felt as a child when he stood at the feet of Honest Abe’s Washington, D.C., memorial. The biopic that emerged from Spielberg’s lifetime of interest indicates the director cultivated a very comfortable relationship with the Lincoln that lived within him. His Abraham Lincoln, as inhabited by Daniel Day-Lewis, comes off as a feel-your-pain empath with enormous reserves of charm and reason. The key to the success of Spielberg’s period piece is the time frame he focused on: the four months leading to Lincoln’s assassination.

It wasn’t easy to avoid a sprawling epic, as Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) initially created a 500-page screenplay based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln. Spielberg zeroed in on 70 of those pages, which balanced the ending of the Civil War with the passage of the 13th Amendment. After opening with scenes of hand-to-hand combat on a muddy battlefield, Kushner and Spielberg outline the complexities of Lincoln’s dilemma.

Politically, he has to decide whether slaves should be legally freed before or after a peace plan with the South is carved out. Domestically, he deals with the anxieties of wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), who still grieves over the death of son Willie, and the desire of his oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to fight in the war. Mary Todd’s histrionics are fueled in part by the criticism of chief radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), whose withering cynicism and wit are fearsome weapons on the House of Representatives floor.

Whether or not Stevens can control himself will factor into a crucial plot point, as well as a performance that is sure to garner Best Supporting Actor accolades for Jones. Day-Lewis is phenomenal, appearing to age 10 years during the film’s four-months and giving tremendous insight into what sort of man Lincoln had to be in order to navigate the political waters of the time. And James Spader stands out as part of a trio of back-room political operatives (with John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson). His W.N. Bilbo provides much-needed comic relief when dialogue-heavy passages weigh Lincoln down.

The early excessive exposition is necessary to set up the rest of the film, as well as for Spielberg to fully impart his appreciation for Lincoln’s dilemma. Lincoln’s folksy humor (“If you’re going to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of true north?”) is demonstrated as a disarming defense, and a chance for him to buy time to let a dilemma simmer on his brain’s backburner until a solution emerged. He doesn’t appear in the most effective scene in the movie, however, when Stevens brings home the paper on which the 13th Amendment is written. It’s the highest point of a film released when a divided nation needed it most.

LINCOLN Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, directed by Steven Spielberg, rated PG-13, 149 mins