'Lincoln' Anchored by Transcendent Performance From Daniel Day-Lewis (MOVIE REVIEW)

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When the two names Abraham Lincoln and Steven Spielberg are put together, it’s easy to imagine extended battle scenes beneath iron-gray skies, deeds of derring do, death and honor exquisitely edited to somber, elegiac music by John Williams.

But there’s very little of that in Lincoln, a verbally dense drama played out in offices and meeting places in the Capitol as the president attempts to garner enough votes to pass the 13th Amendment and abolishing slavery.

Spielberg’s latest is masterfully crafted but has a lethargic pace and a nearly exclusive focus on politics that some will find tedious. One thing both fans and detractors will agree on is Daniel Day-Lewis delivers yet another astonishing performance and will almost certainly be nominated come awards season.

What makes Day-Lewis' performance special?

Lincoln has been portrayed numerous times on the big screen, notably by Henry Fonda in the 1939 classic, Young Mr. Lincoln. But as memorable as Fonda is, after seeing the new movie, it’s difficult to imagine anybody but Day-Lewis in the role.

Ironically, when we think of the 16th President, we think of a powerful presence with a thunderous voice, a character ideally suited to Day-Lewis. In fact, Lincoln had a high, reedy voice which Day-Lewis adapts with results that are jarring at first, but soon mitigated by the sagacity of his words and the poetry of his phrasing.

In the months leading up to his assassination, the 56-year-old president is a tired man, with the weight of four years of conflict hanging heavily on his shoulders. Day-Lewis plays him slow of speech and movement -- one who is wise beyond his years and patient in his ways.

Seen by his cabinet as political suicide, the 13th Amendment embodies for Lincoln the irrefutable Euclidean equation of equality, fairness and justice -- an ideal he would defend to his death.

Playwright Tony Kushner, who co-wrote Munich for Spielberg, adapts Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team Of Rivals more as a stage play than a screenplay, with dense, dialogue-driven scenes strung out over two and a half hours.

While there are times Lincoln feels like the best HBO movie ever, Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his play Angels In America, is a wordsmith with few equals in television or cinema. He artfully interweaves volumes of exposition, character and backstory with lyrical vocabulary and speech patterns customary to the times, adapting a mid-nineteenth century tongue in a manner that sounds authentic and naturally poetic.

Spielberg’s movie relies heavily on a legion of supporting players including David Straithairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Hal Holbrook as Republican Party founder Preston Blair and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant.

The President’s political operatives -- played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes -- add much needed comic relief as they canvas Democratic senators, scouring for votes.

Sally Fields enjoys a shrill and tragic turn as Mary Todd Lincoln, Abe’s emotionally unstable wife still mourning the death of their young son three years earlier. While the Civil War rages outside, she represents Lincoln’s own "divided house" at home, one which leaves him at a loss. Fields brings a needed distaff balance to the material, and her odd logic and emotional concerns standing in contrast to the political proceedings.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a thankless role as the Lincoln’s eldest son Robert on a return visit from Harvard. Other than one memorable scene outside a military hospital where his dreams of enlisting in the army are finally put to rest, he is given little to do.

The most memorable supporting role goes to Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens, a like-minded abolitionist who feels the 13th Amendment doesn’t go far enough.

A consummate character actor, Jones gets to show his craggy old man side, one that comes a bit too easily to him. He is at his best when arguing before the House where he is a font of witty insults and invective. Ornery, smug, officious and sly as a fox, Jones stands out in the ensemble and delivers an Oscar-caliber performance.

Spielberg’s wide-ranging cast and period-specific sets are lit by long-time collaborator and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose cold winter light leaks through tall windows into high ceilinged rooms.

Kaminski’s work lends an atmosphere of authenticity that complements Rick Carter’s detailed production design. His sets and furnishings have the telltale element of specificity but never feel embalmed.

With a lavish and distinctive look, superb acting and artfully rendered material, it’s difficult to call Lincoln anything but a grand success. But some audiences will find it a bit too demanding while others will see a sublime and thoughtful movie about a time when leadership showed moral resolve and courage.

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