The moment he first appears on the screen as the title character in "Lincoln," Daniel Day-Lewis reaches out, grabs your attention and refuses to let go for the next two and a half hours.
Day-Lewis is acknowledged as one of our great modern film actors and "Lincoln" only reinforces that view. He looks like he walked straight off a $5 bill or a Mathew Brady photograph. He is tall and stoop-shouldered, with sunken cheeks and the haunted look of a man who has led his country through four years of a bloody civil war.
Then Day-Lewis speaks, and you are completely hooked. He talks in the high-pitched voice suggested by history books (and not previously used in a film about Lincoln). His plain speaking, his way with a story and the wisdom of his words immediately make you feel like you are in the room with the 16th president of the United States.
It is a mesmerizing performance, and "Lincoln" would be worth seeing just for Day-Lewis. But there is more to Steven Spielberg's movie than that -- quite a bit more.
If you think "Lincoln" is going to be another Civil War epic -- something certainly suggested by ads for the film -- you would be wrong. Working with a literate and lyrical script by playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg has crafted an intimate, compelling drama. While the horror of the war permeates the entire movie, there is just one short battle scene and one scene that takes Lincoln to the carnage of the battleground around Petersburg, Va.
The bulk of the film focuses on one crucial, but nonbattlefield, moment in Lincoln's presidency: the passage of the 13th Amendment, which not only made freedom for the slaves part of the Constitution but granted them equality.
Lincoln has just been elected to his second term, and the war is starting to wind down to what has become its inevitable conclusion. Lincoln realizes that the amendment, passed by the Senate but stalled in House, has to be approved before the conflict ends or it will be forever blocked by opponents.
Drawing in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-seller "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Kushner's script gives us a ringside seat to Lincoln's maneuvering (some of it more than a bit shady) to achieve his goal. An overture of peace from the Confederates is deflected. Jobs are offered, arms twisted. He tries-- most often, successfully, sometimes not -- to move an array of colorful, passionate politicians of the day around the chess board of Washington politics. Lincoln even grows testy with his own cabinet, divided on the issue, in a truly memorable scene draw largely from Goodwin's book.
It all culminates in the final vote on the amendment, which, even though you know how it turns out, proves to be extraordinarily gripping.
Beyond Day-Lewis' towering presence, what makes it all work is Kushner's clever, often witty dialogue and the cast Spielberg has pulled together, an array of character actors drawn from both film and television.
Tommy Lee Jones gets a showcase spot as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, the ill-tempered and sharp-tongued proponent of abolition who could derail everything with his refusal to compromise his beliefs. David Strathairn ("Good Night, and Good Luck") plays Secretary of State William H. Seward ,who may not have Lincoln's vision but knows how to play the Washington game. Sally Field might technically be too old to be playing Mary Todd Lincoln, but she makes the first lady, often portrayed as completely mad, a sympathetic if haunted character.
Sometimes, the use of TV actors with such clearly defined personas can be a bit of a problem. It may take you a bit to accept Jared Harris ("Mad Men") as Ulysses S. Grant, Walton Goggins ("Justified") as a member of the House, Gloria Reuben ("ER") as Elizabeth Keckley and James Spader ("Boston Legal") as a political operative. But you get over it fairly quickly, and Spader, in particular, gives one of the liveliest performances in the film.
"Lincoln" does have one notable flaw. The vote is really the high point of the film, but Spielberg goes beyond that to the assassination of Lincoln. The segment is perfectly fine, but it feels tacked-on, certainly unnecessary to a piece that should have ended with the moment when Lincoln leaves for Ford's Theater.
But in the end, that's a minor complaint about one of the finest historical dramas ever committed to film. It's a triumph for Spielberg, Kushner and, most of all, Day-Lewis.
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
Opens: Friday in San Francisco; elsewhere Nov. 16
Rating: PG-13 (for language and some violence)
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones
Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes