The previous Oscar winner reveals the man behind the myth in his role as the nation's 16th president

By Alynda Wheat
Updated November 09, 2012 02:30 PM
Credit: David James

As a grateful nation, we’ve polished the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to such a high gloss that you can barely make out the man. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln strips away the varnish to reveal a President who’s warm, funny and craftily political.

The alchemy is in Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln. His rounded shoulders and reedy tenor belie a power that roars as Lincoln fights to pass the 13th Amendment, ending slavery. (I’m calling it: The Oscar is Day-Lewis’s to lose.)

Two factions lead the President’s charge: a triumvirate of carrot-and-stick men, including a piquant James Spader, who woo balky politicians; and influential statesmen, such as Tommy Lee Jones’s ferociously principled Thaddeus Stevens, who dominate a raucous Congress.

That the legislative process feels so vibrant is the genius of Tony Kushner’s script. (It also helps that the film’s women, particularly Sally Field’s Mary Todd, are so ballsy.)

Granted, Lincoln drags near the end, and the film fails to explore the man’s complex feelings about race. But how nice it is, perhaps for the first time, to see the man at all.