Who would have though ET’s creator would be an equally great historian?
Steven Spielberg’s flights of fancy – be it “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “Jurassic Park” – have enthralled audiences for generations.
But in between all the fantasy, he’s taken us on voyages through our past – the plight of blacks in “The Color Purple” and “Amistad”; the horrors of World War II in “Empire of the Sun,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”; and the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics massacre in “Munich.”
Now, he’s turned his sights on this country’s greatest president.
In “Lincoln,” now in theaters, Spielberg wisely steers clear of the standard bio flick and instead focuses on the 16th president’s last four months, at which point he battles to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery as the Civil War winds down.
Barring the first few minutes, there is no action in this film. It’s a straight forward drama. But don’t let that dissuade you; this isn’t a college history lecture.
And that’s because Abraham Lincoln comes to life like never before, thanks to the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis.
At no time do you feel you’re watching an actor on the screen. It’s as though Lincoln had just walked off the $5 bill. Along with his so-similar-it’s-eerie physical transformation, Day-Lewis brings warmth, sadness and a surprising amount of humor to the part. Who knew the president spent as much time spinning tales as he did trying to save the Union?
As tour-de-force as Day-Lewis’ performance is, he gets plenty of support. Sally Field is a live wire as Mary Todd Lincoln, while James Spader, surprisingly, hits a home run as William Bilbo, a lawyer who conspired with Secretary of State William Seward to ensure the amendment’s passage.
Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. He’s electrifying and threatens to pull the rug out from under Day-Lewis. His scenes on the floor of the House of Representatives are among the film’s best.
Still, this is Day-Lewis’ show. And in the hands of Spielberg, he takes what is the defining period in our nation’s history out of the classroom and brings it to life.
Hope he’s got enough room on his mantle for a third Best Actor Oscar.