Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, by far the most intelligent of the director's historical films, has as its backdrop the passing of the 13th Amendment. This otherwise first-rate film doesn't quite make the circumstances clear; it doesn't explain that the Emancipation Proclamation might have been considered a wartime emergency measure or that it could have been struck down after the war ended. But Tony Kushner's wily script counters Spielberg's instincts to Capra-ize this history.
In Lincoln, portrayed with sterling wit and nobility by Daniel Day-Lewis, we have the reliable pleasure of watching a charismatic, covert man who won't tell us what it is that's dearest to him. Visible right from the beginning is not just an uncommon man, but a very strange one. And certainly an unhappy one. It's a story of Lincoln as an outwardly serene manipulator; you can see the mask of the weary saint, herding lame-duck congressmen and using his agents to cajole, bribe and threaten.
Lincoln observes the tension between a man haunted by four years of carnage, sleeplessness and grieving, with Sally Field as his proud, unbalanced wife. (She's as weird as he is, really.) The film traffics in moments one didn't know about, such as the irony of the location of Lincoln's son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) when he heard the bad news about his father.
Hal Holbrook lives large as the vast and elderly kingmaker Preston Blair, but he's eclipsed by Tommy Lee Jones' soon to be Oscar-winning Thaddeus Stephens. The performance involves an askew wig and a dog-headed cane (Jones keeps mulling over the carved head, like a jester gazing sadly at his coxcomb). He has grounds for biliousness: a stern radical courted by the milksop mainstreamers, he's ultimately made to take one for the team.
Lincoln is so bewilderingly good, it makes up for occasional, crowd-pleasing banal points. And it overcomes the gulf of time, which makes it so hard for people of today to understand the most remarkable man this nation ever produced.
'Lincoln' opens in wide release on Friday, Nov. 16.