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Daniel Day-Lewis plays our sixteenth president in 'Lincoln' (+video)

'Lincoln' could be more daring but shines a light on the backroom shenanigans that went into abolishing slavery.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / November 9, 2012

Daniel Day-Lewis (center) portrays president Abraham Lincoln as he struggles to abolish slavery.

David James/Dreamworks/AP

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Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” written by Tony Kushner, attempts to memorialize our 16th president without turning him into a statue. This is a tricky business. Too much reverence and you end up with waxworks. Too little and you get “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

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To Spielberg’s credit, he doesn’t go the great-moments-in-history route, at least not altogether. Although I wish “Lincoln” were considerably more daring both as a piece of filmmaking and as an evocation of history, it does a creditable job of delineating the horse-trading and backroom shenanigans behind one of the most momentous of all American political passages.

The movie focuses on the four months at the end of the Civil War, when Lincoln was determined to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. It ends with the war’s conclusion and Lincoln’s assassination days later.

By telescoping Lincoln’s life so drastically, Spielberg and Kushner are trying to make these singular events emblematic of the man. We are supposed to see all of Lincoln in those four supremely trying months. And certainly we can register the imprint of the ordeal on the president through Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal. (He resembles the wartime Lincoln of Mathew Brady’s photographs.) Lincoln remarks at one point that being president has aged him 10 years, and he’s being charitable.

But Day-Lewis is far too wily an actor to simply give us a stooped, woebegone Lincoln and leave it at that. He employs a high, wavering voice (apparently historically authentic) as a subtle, wheedling instrument. Lincoln’s Shakespeare-quoting country lawyer act, often involving the spinning of folksy yarns to the eye-rolling exasperation of his listeners, is an artful guise. He is fully capable of rage, but he parcels it out opportunely, when no other option will do. Lincoln’s complicated attitudes toward slavery and the emancipation of blacks are streamlined and cleaned up for popular consumption (as opposed to, say, their treatment in Gore Vidal’s controversial novel “Lincoln”), but there is one scene near the end that I’m glad made it into the movie: Asked by Mary’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), whether he accepts blacks as equals, he equivocates by saying he does not know her or her people, but that, since, like everybody else, they are “bare, forked animals” (a reference to “King Lear”), he will get used to them. This tarnish to his halo has a welcome sheen. It desanctifies him.

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