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Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis make a dream of Lincoln

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It's a fact: A book about Abraham Lincoln is published every 15 minutes. In the nearly 150 years since he was assassinated, so much has been written about the 16th U.S. president that 27 such volumes are just about his hatbands. Yet there's still appetite enough that Bill O'Reilly can slap his name on a $28 errata-rama about the Great Emancipator's slaying and score a best-seller.

Meanwhile, every 45 minutes or so, someone tells a lie about Steven Spielberg.

It's de rigueur now to disparage or dismiss history's most successful movie director — he's too sentimental, too manipulative, too predictable. These protests usually take the form of defensive denial: "Hey, man, I don't even remember the third time I saw Jurassic Park." But film is a happily manipulative medium as well as a purely voluntary experience. We strap ourselves into the harness of suspended disbelief, and we complain equally when it skims our knees through the mud (too real!) and when it launches us too high (fake!). Either way, can we really be made to feel anything that isn't somewhere waiting to be triggered?

Maybe we want to — and maybe that's why people still line up to see Spielberg's movies.

We also go because he's a brand unto himself, maybe the only director whose name you've ever heard in a commercial between NFL drives. And we go because most of his movies are exactly as good as they are supposed to be. (Did you really think The Terminal was going to be any better than you imagined?) This is the consumer dialogue that bogs down movie-going when the habit costs as much as it does now, when we've begun to reserve the effort for tentpoles and events. We say: That's supposed to be good, and we hope for a return on an investment.

And movies don't arrive much more blue-chip than Spielberg's new Lincoln. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, widely regarded as the best actor working in film. It's heavily based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 juggernaut, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, with a script by the justly lauded playwright Tony Kushner. Throw all their trophies in a buggy, and the horse might have to think it over — and that's before you toss in Tommy Lee Jones' and Sally Field's Oscars and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Teen Choice awards.

The weight of all that pedigree sounds oppressive, but Lincoln is not a fussy epic. It's swift (a relatively modest two hours and 29 minutes), vivid and witty. By Spielberg standards it's both homespun and talky. (In the early going, its ricocheting dialogue and glimmers of idealism feel like something rifled from Aaron Sorkin's middle West Wing drawer.) It is also, by some distance, the best acted of Spielberg's movies.

There's no verb left for what Day-Lewis does onscreen, and that's been true for a while. But whatever studied calculations led him to his Lincoln, with this pained carriage and this cracker-barrel voice and these bottomless silences, the result is seamless and organic — not a performance or even another of his extreme inhabitations but a possession.

Spielberg's deepest art here is in the way he understands what his star is doing: playing a ghost. His and Day-Lewis' Lincoln is our collective dream of someone unknowable, an ethereal character who materializes unexpectedly over and over to tell some small but important story, then disappear again into the dark. (Several of these short duets occur when Lincoln wakes someone.)

After a battlefield prologue and a kind of post-prologue that introduces the president, Lincoln comes to us in a dream — one of his own. Director of photography Janusz Kaminski, after two scenes shot in virtual darkness, bathes Day-Lewis in distorted, burnt-sepia light to indicate the migraine vision rushing past. With that, Kaminski and Spielberg (borrowing from their Saving Private Ryan palette of lead and mud) turn up their lamplight just enough to suggest a constant shroud. We won't really see daylight until the republic is restored, until Lincoln leaves us.

While he remains, he must pass the 13th Amendment. Not much of a cliffhanger, but that's where the rest of the cast comes in. As each player is introduced (sometimes with too much forced suspense as the camera climbs over the back of one head to reveal ... another cool actor with a crazy beard!), Kushner asks us to keep a mental tally of votes for and against the amendment, tracking loyalties as they shift. Cadging those votes for the White House are a trio of historical composites played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, whose progress we monitor by listening for the cornpone theme John Williams has given them, a recurring Hee Haw cue interrupting an otherwise low, stately score.

All you really have to do, though, is watch Jones, who plays abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens with a merkin on his head and an authentic political weariness everywhere else. He, David Strathairn and Sally Field (as, who else, the damaged Mary Todd Lincoln) not only match Day-Lewis but also coax notes from him that few others have. Stevens' turn alone with that almost apparitional Lincoln is as good as this kind of scene gets.

Concentrating on the last four months of Lincoln's life keeps the drama tight and sharp, but it lets Spielberg achieve something else too. If last year's War Horse was his unabashed ode to Technicolor John Ford, his shadowy Lincoln answers Ford's deeply moral black-and-white classic Young Mr. Lincoln, from 1939. What David Thomson, writing about Saving Private Ryan, has called "the tremor of decency" runs through both directors' work. In Day-Lewis, it finds a once-in-a-career anchor.


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