A bearded wraith skulks around in the dead of night. Tall and bent, his shoulders wrapped in a wool throw, he's a chilling figure in a cold, dark house.
His house is the White House, and the wraith is Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States. In Lincoln - Steven Spielberg's penetrating portrait of a nation's leader at a moment of epic crisis - Daniel Day-Lewis delivers an utterly extraordinary performance, his voice aquiver, his body angular but pliant, moving with a creaking, spongy gait down the corridors of the residence on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Civil War has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. And Lincoln's campaign to outlaw the trade in human beings ("If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," he wrote) is being thwarted by a recalcitrant Congress.
Lincoln begins with bayonets and mud and muskets, soldiers in close, miserable combat, but for the most part, the action in Spielberg's handsome piece of history is verbal, emotional, electric. With a screenplay by Tony Kushner, adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film masterfully captures the dual dilemmas facing the president in the final months of his life: how to bring the war between the states to an end, and how to eradicate slavery, once and for all.
And though his goals were lofty, the country lawyer-turned-commander in chief was savvy enough to know that deals needed to be made, patronage jobs promised, if he was to win over the anti-abolitionist Democrats in the House of Representatives.
And so, Lincoln is as much about the process of our political system as it is about the people who try to master it. This is one of Spielberg's key achievements: that he introduces a gang of contentious pols (William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, Edwin Stanton) and manages to keep track of who they are, and how they are allied with, or opposed to, their president.
But Lincoln is also a human tale, and Day-Lewis, armed with Kushner's eloquent prose, brings his subject to life with grace, humor, and soul. The president was, by accounts, a wild storyteller, and there are wonderful scenes where Lincoln veers off on colorful narrative jags, regaling soldiers, telegraph operators, members of his cabinet with metaphoric rambles whose implications are not always clear.
Perhaps it's the alchemical way the actor gets under the skin of his character, but Day-Lewis' channeling of Honest Abe makes everyone else's job all the more daunting. Tommy Lee Jones, as the Pennsylvania "Radical Republican" Thaddeus Stevens, is up to the task, with his wrinkles, wigs, and wry manner; Jared Harris brings a battleworn wisdom to his Gen. Grant.
But Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Lincoln's wife and eldest son, never really get their footing. Field, especially, has trouble finding the center of gravity for the slightly loony Mary Todd Lincoln. And Gordon-Levitt, as Robert, the son who wants to enlist, but is forbidden to do so, broods accordingly. Yet this filial drama seems insignificant, somehow. Lincoln's relationship with his younger son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), is more compelling - the president curls up alongside his sleeping boy by a fireplace, or watches as Tad surveys tintype portraits of slaves.
But never mind a few misguided casting choices; Lincoln is exceptionally good, elevated by a preternatural star turn, and by the energy and invention its director displays in telling a story that doesn't rely on action and special effects.
Instead, it relies on a pivotal moment in America's history, as seen through the eyes of the man at the maelstrom's center, trying to wield his might, doing what he believes is right.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies