Dark, stately, noble-minded and slightly creaky in the joints -- that's the Abraham Lincoln most Americans know, and it also describes "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's cinematic portrait of the man. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, "Lincoln" is wrapped in the heavy cloak of the traditional biopic, with all the top-shelf acting, period detail and important speeches the genre requires.
"Lincoln" is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," which details the 16th president's efforts to unite bitter enemies to end both slavery and the Civil War. Herein lies the movie's freshest idea, of Lincoln as a wheeler-dealer trading secret favors for yea-votes on the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. There's also something delicious in discovering that Honest Abe could be a Clinton-caliber prevaricator.
If, in this postelection haze, you can stand watching more debates, the movie's liveliest scenes take place in the riotous House of Representatives with scores of fine actors like Lee Pace (as the pro-South Democrat Fernando Wood), a surprisingly funny James Spader (as a dirty-work Lincoln operative) and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, another abolitionist willing to do anything for his cause. Stevens is also the one character in this mostly white movie who regards blacks as actual people, not distant abstractions.
As for Day-Lewis, he's uncannily good. Few actors have seemed so thoroughly comfortable in a role, and few could glide so easily through screenwriter Tony Kushner's tricky dialogue, mingling the era's flowery grandiloquence with down-home expressions like "Buzzard's guts, man!" Sally Field, as a histrionic Mary Todd, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as her son Robert, feel less convincing.
Overall, this finely crafted "Lincoln" offers everything you'd expect. But somehow, that's a little disappointing.
PLOT The story of Abraham Lincoln's efforts to end slavery and the Civil War during the final months of his life
RATING PG-13 (brief violence and gruesome imagery)
BOTTOM LINE Honest Abe as wheeler-dealer is an intriguing new notion, and Day-Lewis is extraordinary in the role. But this "Lincoln" feels like a museum piece, well-crafted and resolutely traditional.