(director: Steven Spielberg; screenwriters: Tony Kushner/based in part on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin; cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski; editor: Michael Kahn; music: John Williams; cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (President Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathairn (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), Gulliver McGrath (Tad Lincoln), James Spader (W. N. Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Stephen Henderson (William Slade), Peter McRobbie ( George Pendleton), Gloria Reuben (Elizabeth Keckley), Jared Harris (Ulysses S. Grant), S. Epatha Merkerson (Lydia Smith), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), David Costabile (James Ashley), Michael Stuhlbarg (George Yeaman), Lee Pace (Fernando Wood), Joseph Cross (John Hay), David Warshosky (William Hutton), David Oyelowd (Negro Union Soldier), Colman Domingo (Negro Union Soldier); Runtime: 149; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Steven Spielberg/Kathleen Kennedy; DreamWorks and Touchstone Pictures; 2012)

“A fascinating history lesson taking place mostly in the backrooms of Washington.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A more restrained, somewhat stuffy chamber drama and heady Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”/”Amistad“/”The Color Purple”)Hollywood blockbuster film, with high production values, that even if not a daring lyrical break-through venture and more talky like a play than a film, is still masterfully created as a film and lets us be a fly-on-the-wall for a fascinating history lesson taking place mostly in the backrooms of Washington in the month of January 1865 that shows through buying votes with patronage the most glorious of all American bills was passed, the 13th Amendment, that abolished slavery forever–a follow-up to the Presidential decree in 1863 of his wartime Emancipation Proclamation and a telling sign the president was evolving when it came to racial matters. This passage of the bill allowed Lincoln to sign a treaty on April 9th at Appomattox to bring the defeated Confederacy back to the Union as full citizens with the understanding slavery was a thing of the past.The film only depicts the last four months of Lincoln’s life and ends with its third big event, the Lincoln assassination on April 14th, that goes unseen.

It’s based in part on the popular 2005 book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin entitled “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” that supplies all the key research, and is superbly written by playwright Tony Kushner in a timely and informative manner arguing for Lincoln as a shrewd pragmatic idealist liberator, much like an Old Testament prophet, who wishes he could walk one day in the ancient city of Jerusalem “where David and Solomon walked.” The 149 minute length passes quickly. Spielberg regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shuns great visuals for effective atmospheric interior shots in dark rooms, where crafty politicians do their bartering and appear in the dark with only Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), the beleaguered 16th president, the film’s focal point, beaming with the spiritual light of a biblical prophet who is on a critical mission to lead his people into a just world for all and because of the ongoing war is someone who has aged rapidly realizing his administration has fought the bloodiest war America has ever known.

The brilliant performance by Day-Lewis has a natural flow that captures Lincoln’s Christian piety; his political acumen; his squeaky high-pitched voice, distaste for wearing gloves and his hunchback walk; his tenderness with his brooding and nagging depressed Southern wife Mary (Sally Field), still grieving the loss of their favored 3-year-old son a few years ago, whom he calls Molly, and his attentiveness to his playful young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and how he also must deal with Molly’s demands that their oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) remain at Harvard and be kept out of the bloody war even if he insists on joining the Army; his folksy ways in telling stories to make political points and his ability to connect with the masses and be perceived as an icon who is also a regular guy (one of them). The large supporting cast all give strong performances, with David Strathairn as the political savvy Secretary of State William Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as the uncompromising abolitionist Republican Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens, conceived in this film as a good guy, and the wealthy conservative Republican founder from Maryland, Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), a slave-holder against slavery who is uniting with the moderate Lincoln but separating himself from the radical Republicans.

It opens showing the brutal hand-to-hand combat in the rain and mud of a Southern battle-field, strewn with corpses, in January 1865, and two new Negro Union recruits (Colman Domingo & David Oyelowd) talking with glee that they’re all black outfit just wiped out a Rebel outfit as payback for a previous battle and say they are looking forward to a future as free men when the bloody war ends. Spielberg, always the good storyteller, then spends most of the film following the backroom shenanigans of Lincoln’s inner circle over the debate concerning the 13th Amendment, with cabinet member Seward enlisting three corrupt Republican lobbyist operators (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to offer deals to those lame duck 64 Democrat Congressmen (needing some 20 Democrats to get a two-thirds majority required to pass the bill) who will be out of work when the new Congress reconvenes.

The politics of the day shows the re-elected in November Lincoln not as he’s usually depicted as Honest Abe, but as just another politician who is not above using his immense powers to make sure he buys the votes of the men he needs to pass his bill and that he is willing to get them lucrative government jobs and whatever else he can to get their vote. He does these political moves because he’s morally committed to ending slavery and uses the art of politics to ensure that his convictions are followed. On the floor of the House of Representatives, Republican Thaddeus Stevens trades clever acerbic barbs with spiteful rivals such as George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) and the flashy pro-slavery Democrat congressman Wood (Lee Pace). Meanwhile former African slave Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mrs. Lincoln’s confidant, sits with her boss in the gallery anxiously watching how Congress votes on a controversial bill, even if watered down, that will change her life and America’s forever.