'Lincoln' review: Great performance, OK movie

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'Lincoln'

'Lincoln' (November 5, 2012)

**1/2 (out of four)

It's pretty incredible that Steven Spielberg got the real Abraham Lincoln to play himself in “Lincoln,” a recounting of the first few months of 1865 as the president worked to pass the 13th Amendment and end the Civil War.

What? That’s not the real Lincoln? Hell if Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't pass for Honest Abe to a degree that's downright astonishing.

With a beard, makeup and the right clothes, the lanky Day-Lewis already kind of looks like America’s 16th president. Yet the actor’s precise and unexpectedly soft, high voice and ability to evoke firmness and control without being especially animated make his Lincoln undoubtedly presidential.

Unless you were recently unfrozen from ice and don't know who won the Civil War or if the 13th Amendment passed, “Lincoln” may not provide much tension. Aside from an opening battle depicting the brutality of war between countrymen, Spielberg's film (adapted by Tony Kushner from a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin) consists almost entirely of scenes showing Lincoln’s insistence on pushing through the amendment—even as folks on both sides of the aisle oppose the abolition of slavery while supporting an end to the war.

The cast, including Tommy Lee Jones (who better to say “You fatuous nincompoop?”), David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, James Spader, John Hawkes and Lee Pace, is first-rate. And the movie’s main idea—that politicians need to play the political game but also stand devoted to controversial opinions—comes through loud and clear. Reaching across party lines works because those converted are more committed to their sense of duty than to where they sit in the House.

Still, the film shows an awful lot of bearded and/or wigged white men giving speeches rather than providing a broad portrait of the day’s activism. With its revolving door of underdeveloped supporting characters including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son Robert and Sally Field as Mary Todd, the stiff “Lincoln” rarely invests in the complexities of its perspectives or the details of history. It shows virtually none of the effects of the racism it discusses. Few will walk out feeling as if they've gained considerable insight into anyone or anything about these events.

“My dad has to see that movie,” an audience member said on the way out of the early screening. I suspect many moviegoers will have this reaction. “Lincoln” isn't flashy, and it's far from exciting. If you sat down looking for 3-D vampires, that's the other Lincoln movie that flopped earlier this year.

Rather than bringing real history to vibrant life or offering any surprising insights on the America that was, this “Lincoln” simply presents a victory earned and a precedent set by a man, not a myth.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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