As with the great John Ford (Young Mr. Lincoln) before him, it would be out of character for Steven Spielberg to construct a conventional, cradle-to-grave portrait of a historical figure. In drawing from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, the director instead depicts a career-defining moment in the career of Abraham Lincoln (an uncharacteristically restrained Daniel Day-Lewis).
With the Civil War raging, and the death toll rising, the president focuses his energies on passage of the 13th Amendment. Even those sympathetic to the cause question his timing, but Lincoln doesn't see the two issues as separate, and the situation turns personal when his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), chooses to enlist rather than to study law. While still mourning the loss of one son, Mary (Sally Field) can't bear to lose another.
Playwright Tony Kushner, who adapted the screenplay, takes a page from the procedural handbook in tracing Lincoln's steps to win over enough representatives to abolish slavery, while simultaneously bringing a larger-than-life leader down to a more manageable size. In his stooped-shoulder slouch and Columbo-like speech, Day-Lewis succeeds so admirably that the more outspoken characters, like congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and lobbyist W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), threaten to steal the spotlight whenever they enter the scene, but the levity of their performances provides respite from the complicated strategizing and carnage-strewn battlefields.
If Lincoln doesn't thrill like the Kushner-penned Munich, there's never a dull moment-though it would take a second viewing to catch all the political nuances. -Kathleen C. Fennessy