A driving theme of Steven Spielberg movies is how ordinary men with strong moral cores find the strength to do extraordinary things in the face of great opposition. Those characters include the never-say-die Indiana Jones, the determined Captain Miller in "Saving Private Ryan" and the heroic Oskar Schindler in "Schindler's List."
Spielberg's latest examination of that theme comes in "Lincoln," which concentrates on the efforts by the 16th president to get the 13th Amendment passed to constitutionally abolish slavery. It's a little-told story in the Lincoln legacy despite how much this effort defined his legacy.
The task of portraying the ordinary man with a strong moral core goes to British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, whose makeup makes him look like he posed for the five dollar bill. Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln as a man of vision, often given to making his points through rambling stories. Besides being in charge of the country during the most divided time in American history, Lincoln also must contend with the grief at the loss of a child, the maddening moments of his wife (Sally Field) and the efforts by his oldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist.
Even when he's walking across the room, Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as a man who's been beaten down by the ever growing weight of the world. While his demeanor is passive, the actor never lets you forget that Lincoln knew his actions would forever paint a picture of a very young United States for the world. That part of the film is played out with the same detailed examination of character that's such a trademark of Spielberg movies.
What isn't typical is the often stilted and stayed construction of the story. Of the film's 150 minute running time, 140 are scenes of politicians arguing, discussing, denying, debating and arguing some more. Just as in the musical "1776," what these men are talking about is important. But, unlike the musical -- or any other Spielberg movie -- the presentation is so dark and dreary that it seems like some scenes go on for four score seventy minutes.
Some of the politicians make major changes in their thinking as the battle wages on over the amendment. Less time spent talking about the vote and more time spent showing what made these men think and rethink their policies would have helped.
Even Lincoln's home life is reduced to a melodramatic moment between the president and Mary Todd Lincoln, a few scenes with youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and the former slaves working in the White House. Each of these story lines would have been compelling but were reduced to afterthoughts because of the laborious attention given to the political rhetoric.
Spielberg even stumbles at giving the movie a proper ending. Lincoln's life story is well documented and didn't have to play completely out in this film. But Spielberg adds two false endings to the film and that adds to the wearisome nature.
Despite the penchant for talk, "Lincoln" does have one tent pole that keeps it from collapsing on itself like a circus rapidly leaving town. Day-Lewis shows that a quiet and powerful performance can be compelling even when there's a lot of endless chatter to try the creative souls of moviegoers.
"Lincoln," rated PG-13 for language, war violence. Stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, John Hawkes, Tommy Lee Jones. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Running time: 150 minutes. Grade: B-
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TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.