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'Lincoln' infused with fascinating, brilliant performances

| Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 1:14 p.m.

We have come through a brutal, bruising presidential election season, with wounds aplenty on all sides.

Most of us are sick of it all, particularly since the first few days after the election seemed to promise barely a momentary lull in the partisan bickering that divides so many. Steven Spielberg provides a balm.

His “Lincoln,” in addition to being a fascinating story, reminds us at once that politics was always a dirty game and that, despite a few shady turns here and there, some men rise above it.

Way above it, in fact, into the annals of history. Abraham Lincoln was such a man, and what Spielberg gives us, greatly aided by Daniel Day-Lewis' brilliant portrayal, is not only a man willing to fight dirty to get what he wanted, but also a man so unshakably sure that what he is fighting for is right that the ends justify the means.

But this is not a biography of the 16th president, not a rags-to-lesser-rags story. Instead it is a small slice of historically crucial life, told in great detail. It's set in 1865, with the Civil War winding down. The U.S. Senate has passed the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, but the vicious fight in the House seems all but certain to doom the amendment to failure. Even Lincoln's cabinet and aides want him to back off, but the president realizes that it's now or never. When the Southern states return to the Union, they'll never vote for passage of the amendment.

Which puts Lincoln in an even more curious spot. A delegation from the Confederate States of America, led by Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), is heading to Washington to negotiate peace. While that's what Lincoln and everyone else wants, it can't come too quickly. Passage of the amendment must come first, if it is to come at all.

If it sounds like so much backroom politicking, it is. But it is exceptionally interesting, entertaining backroom politicking. Tony Kushner, working in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals,” gives us in his script the hilariously mean-spirited debate on the House floor, with radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) urging passage of the amendment, and Democrats like Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), fighting hammer and tongs against it. If you think the recent election got personal, perhaps you'll find solace in the knowledge that things were once even worse. (You'll need to readjust your political radar for the film; Republicans are the more progressive party in 1865.)

Of course, the stakes couldn't have been higher. Spielberg establishes the context from the first frames of the film, with a savage, “Saving Private Ryan”-type battle. These were not theoretical political discussions; men were fighting and dying, in large numbers. A later scene, in which Lincoln rides through the aftermath of a battle, is even more harrowing, a grim reminder of what was lost.

Not all of Lincoln plays out like an extended 19th century episode of “The West Wing.” Sally Field is suitably manic as Mary Todd Lincoln, crazed by grief at the loss of one son to disease and the thought of losing another (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to war. David Straithairn works the back channels expertly as William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state. He hires a motley crew that includes a hilarious James Spader as W.N. Bilbo to secure votes from weak Democrats, careful not to get his own hands (or the president's) dirty. There is, in fact, not a bad performance in the movie. But, as with representative government, there are firsts among equals.

One is Jones, outstanding as Stevens, a pressure cooker scheming under an awful wig to get Lincoln to go ever farther with the amendment; the president is more politically realistic. Passage is vital to Stevens, whose reasons are complex.

And towering above all, fittingly, is Day-Lewis as Lincoln. We see his negotiations with his cabinet, with his wife, with his conscience. There is a brilliant expediency to the man, but it comes at such a terrible cost. We see the weight of that in his every move, his every utterance, even when he is telling yet another yarn to make a point. A sadness haunts him, as if he knows the end of his own story even as he realizes the importance of the larger one. His place in history is not as important as history itself. It is how great men live. “Lincoln” reminds us of this, and of its rarity.

• Wide

Bill Goodykoontz is a film critic for The Arizona Republic.

‘Lincoln'

• PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language

• 3.5 stars

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