Shot in sepia tints, with detailed period sets and ornate facial hair, the tableaux vivants that constitute Steven Spielberg's wry hagiography resemble Mathew Brady daguerreotypes, and are about as lively. Focusing on the passage of the 13th Amendment — which gave former slaves the rights of citizens — and showing how shady means can achieve a noble end, this stolid effort doesn't draw much vitality from screenwriter Tony Kushner's florid dialogue. He waxes Shakespearean with his rhetoric, and some scenes, like a row between the president and first lady (Sally Field), would have played nicely on the Ford Theatre stage in 1865.
As a history lesson, however, it beats the slide shows of Ken Burns. No doubt having the most Oscar-pandering cast of the year helps — like Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. The resemblance is uncanny, though some object to the voice, which is high-pitched and folksy. But Abe spins a good yarn — too many of them, in fact, or so says a disgusted cabinet member. And one political opponent berates him, justly, for his pieties. The truth is, except for some domestic stress, this Lincoln doesn't develop much beyond being a genial blowhard. Even the conflict of resorting to dubious tactics doesn't ruffle his sanctity.
On the other hand, the scalawags who do that dirty work provide some diversion. James Spader as a back-room bargainer exudes the juicy corruption of a Thomas Nast cartoon. Maybe the real star is fright-wigged Tommy Lee Jones's abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens; he's the one truest to his principles, and takes the most pleasure in them, too.
PETER KEOUGH »PKEOUGH[a]PHX.COM