Film review: This Abe is hard to top

The trailers and TV ads for "Lincoln" — with their wall-to-wall music, stately proclamations and reverent tone — suggest an unrestrained Steven Spielberg, fully indulging his worst tendencies. They won't win any truth-in-advertising awards either — a good thing, since what we get is far better than they lead you to expect.

The life of Lincoln — here played by Daniel Day-Lewis — is not exactly untrod territory; our 16th president has been used as a character in hundreds of films and TV shows, of which at least a dozen had biographical aspirations. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have wisely focused the movie on one important, eventful month in Lincoln's life — January 1865 — during the struggle to get Congress on board with the 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery. (Perhaps 10 or 15 of its 150 minutes fall outside that span.)

While there are brief nods to his home life — primarily dealing with the overwhelming grief both he and his wife (Sally Field) still feel over the death of 11-year-old son Willie three years earlier — this is primarily about Lincoln the politician and secondarily about the various characters' ambivalent attitudes toward slavery, abolition and the equality of the “races.” Lincoln may be fighting to end slavery, but that doesn't mean that his beliefs are altogether enlightened.

Here he is not only a politician, but a real rough-and-tumble one. He has nowhere near enough votes in the House for the 67% supermajority he'll need to derail a filibuster — a tactic the Democratic minority will undoubtedly use to stop passage. Some things never change, and it's hard to miss the similarities between 1865 and the 21st century.

The job has to be done before the end of the month, so Lincoln authorizes three lobbyists/enforcers/thugs (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and a nearly unrecognizable James Spader) to cajole, bribe, threaten and generally use all means necessary to ensure the votes. By focusing more on tactics than on ideology, Spielberg manages to scrape away some of the hagiographic sheen the years have provided, to reveal a tougher, more human Lincoln.

It's vaguely ironic that Spielberg hired a Brit to play our most revered president — hey, even Raymond Massey was Canadian — but Day-Lewis is physically a close match and a good enough actor to pull it off. In his voice — reedy, thin and frequently at a mutter — he apparently comes closer to the historical facts than most of his predecessors.

“Lincoln” is brilliantly cast throughout: In addition to Day-Lewis, Field, Spader, Nelson and Hawkes, we get Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris and, last but definitely not least, Tommy Lee Jones.

While Day-Lewis gets to repeat some of Lincoln's jokes, and Spader and his buddies provide moments of humor, it's Jones (as Thaddeus Stevens, the most emphatic antislavery congressman) who provides all the funniest moments. He thereby almost walks away with the film and is guaranteed an Oscar nomination for supporting actor (which he will very likely win).

One of the strangest (arguably worst) aspects of “Lincoln” is that, while Lincoln is the protagonist, he doesn't have any internal character arc; at the end, he is internally much the same man as at the start. Stevens is the only one confronted with a true crisis of conscience. Jones plays it brilliantly, and we get to identify with Stevens at that moment more than we ever do with Lincoln. We are never put in Lincoln's place; we are always looking at him.

John Williams has, as usual, written a fine score. To his and Spielberg's credit, it's also a short score. In one of the most noticeable differences from the trailer, music is used sparingly, a decision that provides a more immediate, you-are-there feel.

The only major downside to “Lincoln” is the omission of the vampires. Talk about a whitewash!

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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