Nov. 9, 2012 at 9:55 AM ET
REVIEW: Don't expect Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" to shake the screen with the action of "Jurassic Park" or "Saving Private Ryan." But that doesn't matter. The biopic is an engrossing look at what exactly our beloved sixteenth president had to do to get enough votes in the House of Representatives to abolish slavery.
It sounds like a tough sell for a Spielberg film. Marvel -- as congressmen are bribed with promises of jobs! Gasp -- as they quietly mull their options! Thrill -- as a politician debates about crossing party lines! But this is Spielberg we're talking about, and the gifted Daniel Day-Lewis as Honest Abe, and the entire package is so well-wrapped that two and a half hours of politicking fly by.
You can't help but think Day-Lewis will be a major contender for a best actor Oscar. It's easy to convince yourself that the real Lincoln was quite a bit like he's portrayed here. Day-Lewis carries a sad gravity with him -- he's not only trying to steer the country through a war that split it in two, he's still grieving the loss of son Willie three years prior. But he's still a gentle genius who spins out stories that manage to both entertain and educate his audience at the same time. If Lincoln wasn't like that in real life, he surely is in the enshrined images we hold of him.
While Day-Lewis sinks into his character and is almost unrecognizable, Sally Field as his wife Mary Todd Lincoln remains undeniably Sally Field. Her voice and look are distinctive as ever, but she does help you understand the much-maligned first lady, who was all but broken by her son's death. (A line she delivers saying she knows history will judge her for that felt a bit too 2012, but this is Spielberg after all.)
Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader and Hal Holbrook also have memorable roles, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's turn as son Robert Todd Lincoln is brief if bright.
"Lincoln" will likely live on long after it leaves theaters -- it deserves to be shown to American history classes for years to come. If political schmoozing and backroom debating was really this interesting in the 1860s, it's a shame there wasn't some primitive version of C-SPAN in those tobacco-spattered, smoke-filled Capitol backrooms.