According to a famous quote, ''Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made.''
In many ways, ''Lincoln'' is more a dramatization of that expression than a traditional biofilm.
The Steven Spielberg movie doesn't attempt to cover Abraham Lincoln's entire life or even his presidency. It's narrowly focused primarily on a month following his re-election when the President is trying to secure passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the waning days of the Civil War.
That might not be the movie many were expecting when this project first was announced, but the approach works.
Through that narrow focus, it becomes a more illuminating portrait of Lincoln than a survey of the highlights of his life might have been. And anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, it is a fascinating film that makes an iconic figure flesh and blood and simultaneously comments on contemporary politics.
The movie starts after Lincoln's re-election in 1864. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in the Civil War, which still is raging although there are signs that the South is willing to talk about a settlement. Lincoln sees a narrow window get an amendment through Congress that would abolish slavery. In addition to keeping the Republicans unified, Lincoln needs the votes of 20 Democrats to get the legislation through.
STARS: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earl Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gloria Reuben, Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie.
STORYLINE: With a lame duck congress, President Abraham Lincoln tries to get the votes he needs to pass an amendment abolishing slavery.
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg.
RATING: PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
There are 64 lame duck Dems who will be out of office in a month. Lincoln doesn't want to buy them off directly with bribes, but through Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) he sends out a team to find some House members who might be willing to vote for the amendment in exchange for a government job when their term ends.
The president and his aides cajole and coerce to try to get the numbers they need while at the same time making sure that possible peace talks don't derail the amendment effort
In its own way, the movie seems to argue that the passage of any important legislation isn't pretty, and noble causes seldom succeed solely through noble means. And, ultimately, it's the result that is remembered, and history will determine whether the ends justified the means. And that applies to the abolition of slavery the effort to lead a country to war against Iraq or the passage of the Affordable Health Care Act.
Some may find the approach is too wonky, too inside politics. But Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner find several ways to make it work dramatically.
Kushner's screenplay is filled with marvelous dialogue, some gleaned from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," some the product of his imagination. Instead of dry rhetoric, the scenes in the House chamber are filled with biting exchanges and verbal flourishes that make them as exciting as any physical battle.
More importantly, Spielberg assembles a great cast to tell that story, starting with Day-Lewis.
The physical resemblance is uncanny. With the help of the makeup team, Day-Lewis looks like the paintings and busts and rare photos we have seen since grade school. But he makes the beard and stovepipe hat come alive as he creates a portrait of an eloquent and determined pragmatist who will use his intellect, his sense of humor, his gift for storytelling and the sheer power of his office to get what he wants.
Just as memorable is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a staunch abolitionist with a short temper who needs to suppress his righteous anger to achieve his ultimate goal, and James Spader as the brash, bawdy leader of the group sent out to rustle up the necessary votes.
The lure of the subject matter and working with Spielberg is evident in the depth of a cast that is filled with great character actors - Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earl Haley, Bruce McGill and Tim Blake Nelson, to name a few.
The movie is better at illuminating the political than the personal, but the screenplay does offer some insight into Lincoln's relationship with his wife (played by Sally Field), the strain on their marriage following the death of their son Willie, and his relationships with their other children (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gulliver McGrath). The scenes of Lincoln on the floor engrossed in what his youngest boy is doing are particularly touching.
"Lincoln" does deal with the final months of his life, but frankly the movie might have been more effective if it had ended with the amendment fight.
After getting such a detailed look at the intricacies of that process, the remaining scenes feel cursory and underdeveloped by comparison. And maybe because the expectations are so high for how the assassination might be handled, the result doesn't deliver the emotional impact it demands.