Moviegoers purchasing tickets to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln will be forgiven for feeling as if they're stepping into a wax museum rather than a theater auditorium. Spielberg, who has been planning this project for numerous years, has meticulously, painstakingly recreated an entire era. He has also assembled an impressive cast to fill the roles of the historical figures who were part of Abraham Lincoln's world, whether on the home front or in the political sphere.
To complete the illusion, he has tasked Tony Kushner to fashion a script that leaves no grandiloquent declaration untouched. For all its good intentions and spurts of innovation, though, the film never really comes alive as living, breathing history. Instead, it too often plays like an audio reading of the Congressional Record, with some unwieldly domestic scenes tossed in for good measure.
Rather than the comprehensive biopic suggested by the title, Lincoln instead focuses on the 16th president's final days in office, as he works hard to pass an amendment that would outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude. The film tracks every step of this process, showing how Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) would use any means, some bordering on impeachable, to secure passage. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) works tirelessly on his behalf, playing devil's advocate when necessary but always showing his support; also fighting for the cause is the garrulous Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, chewing the scenery almost as much as he did as Batman Forever's Two-Face).
The political sequences alter between fascinating and fastidious to a fault, yet they're preferable to the shoehorned segments centering on Lincoln's relationships with wife Mary Todd (a shrill Sally Field) and grown son Robert (a wasted Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Day-Lewis' portrayal is, as expected, excellent, and he remains watchable even when the scene around him collapses (the prologue, in which soldiers both black and white recite the Gettysburg Address back to him, is embarrassing in its heavy-handedness). Yet because Day-Lewis is playing a figurehead, an icon, rather than a complete individual - it's amazing how little we learn about the man himself - even his portrayal ultimately comes up short.
Lincoln is a notable achievement, yet this often arid undertaking would have been better had Spielberg decreed that there will be blood in its characterizations.