David Edelstein on Spielberg's inspiring "Lincoln"

Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." DreamWorks

(CBS News) The future course of the presidency is on the ballot this Tuesday . . . to be followed later in the week by a movie about a great president of the past. Our David Edelstein has a review:

Three score and thirteen years ago, our forefathers brought forth Henry Fonda as "Young Mr. Lincoln"; a year later, Raymond Massey as "Abe Lincoln in Illinois." The next three score and eleven were pretty lean, Lincoln-wise, apart from cameos and vampire extravaganzas.

Now, three days after we vote for a president, comes "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as maybe our greatest president.

A royal pedigree - I'm hardly worthy to review it. But this is a democracy, so ...

It's terrific. And surprising. It covers only a few months in 1865, from the fall of one of the Confederacy's last strongholds, to the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment, to the assassination. See, the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order - Lincoln needed Congress to make blacks permanently equal under the law.

So it's about politics - the fine and coarse art of persuasion. The film is nuanced, un-showy, true to Lincoln - his melancholy and sardonic wit and hard-scrabble, lawyerly intelligence.

You don't feel you know him - few in his time did. But you know what it was like to be in his presence.

Day-Lewis captures that mysterious sadness, and the ability to shake it off and be open and generous and tell long anecdotes at the drop of a stovepipe hat.

Sally Field is very fine as the wife who fears history will see her as a crazy shrew.

But the scene-stealing role goes to Tommy Lee Jones as a belligerent abolitionist Congressman, eyes drooping under a thick-locked toupee. He's visibly tortured, softening his views to win over the undecideds. But his compromise changes history.

"Lincoln" is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," famously read by Barack Obama. Lincoln brought rivals into the White House; Obama drafted Hillary Clinton. It's no accident "Lincoln" evokes the bruising health-care debate. Can it be taken as a smack at partisan Republicans? Or a gentle rebuke to a president lacking the Lincolnesque wiles to entice his rivals to the table?

I have my own thoughts, but either way, it's a lesson in when to compromise, and when to go to the mat.

"Lincoln" is more than worshipful. It's inspiring.

Edelstein also endorses:

  • "Flight"
  • "Pitch Perfect"

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