Opening with scenes of Civil War carnage, reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan," this is a cinematic chronicle of the last months in the life of the 16th president of the United States. Based partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Tony Kushner's sensitive, compelling script concentrates on Lincoln's determination to unite our divided nation and to convince rowdy, cantankerous curmudgeons in the House of Representatives of the necessity of passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would permanently abolish slavery. Willing to offer bribery and patronage, Lincoln was a shrewd genius of complicated political strategy.
In the title role, Daniel Day-Lewis is conflicted yet canny and commanding. Not only is the physical resemblance convincing, including the stooped posture, but Day-Lewis also alters his normal baritone to speak in a lighter, warmer tenor voice, appropriate for the witty quips and folksy storytelling of an engaging raconteur. Authoritative and paternal, this is the finest performance you will see all year, equal to and perhaps surpassing his Oscar-winning "My Left Foot" and "There Will Be Blood." Steven Spielberg's choices are impeccable. Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones embody distraught Mary Todd Lincoln and crusading Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. emorable in the ensemble are David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Spader.
The production values are impressive, particularly Spielberg's subtle use of chiaroscuro lighting, adding to period authenticity. He introduces Mary Todd Lincoln as seen through a mirror, indicating the emotional divide between her and her husband. And that's just one of his astute directorial touches. The rest of his technical team includes cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, film editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Lincoln" is a superlative, spellbind-
ing 10. This surprisingly relevant observation on the essence of leadership is, undoubtedly, one of the best pictures of the year.