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Civil War docudrama revisits ‘Team of Rivals’

“Lincoln”

Very Good (3 stars)

Rated PG-13 for gruesome images, brief profanity, ethnic slurs and an intense scene of war violence.

Running time: 149 minutes

Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures

At the beginning of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln invited three of his political opponents to join his Cabinet to form a so-called “Team of Rivals” with the hope of preserving the Union.But the challenges proved to be insurmountable as the Southern states seceded anyway, leading to the outbreak of The Civil War.

By late 1864, much blood had been spilled and the sides seemed as bitterly divided as they had been at the start of the conflict. Even holding the contending factions inside the surviving coalition together came courtesy of compromise, which explains why the Emancipation Proclamation freed the Confederacy’s slaves but none in any of the Union’s four, remaining slave states.

Based on Harvard historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 944-page opus “Team of Rivals,” “Lincoln” telescopes tightly on the last five months of the Great Emancipator’s life, a period during which he was desperately devoted to both abolishing slavery and reuniting the country by ending the Civil War. The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, and bears many of the legendary director’s trademark visual effects like blowing curtains and light flares.

The production is first rate in terms of cast, from Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role to a stellar supporting ensemble which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, James Spader, David Strathairn, Gloria Reuben, S. Epatha Merkerson, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, Jackie Earl Haley and Bruce McGill. Nor did Spielberg scrimp when it came to costuming or set design, which means the film feels authentic and never hits a false note plotwise.

The picture basically revolves around Lincoln’s twisting elbows to get the two-thirds vote in Congress necessary to pass the 13th Amendment ending slavery. This means most of the movie focuses on his exercising his powers of persuasion, promising (sometimes with his fingers crossed) whatever it takes to induce reluctant fellow Republicans and adversaries from across the aisle to support his historic measure.

The president is helped in this regard by his Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) who, in turn, enlists the assistance of Congressmen Bilbo (Spader), Latham (Hawkes) and Schell (Nelson). And already counted on for their votes are longtime liberals like Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) and James Ashley (David Costabile).

This flick doesn’t feature any epic battle scenes or even Lincoln’s assassination, but simply lots and lots of talk scenes. The conversation-driven docudrama winds what passes for tension around the fait accompli of whether or not the president’s bill will pass.

While watching talking heads exchanging dialogue borrowed from “Team of Rivals” might delight history buffs, it’s unfortunately likely to test the patience of kids without a 2½ hour attention span unless it involves action and special f/x. Is it still worth the investment? Yes, but not if you’re expecting anything more than a poignant portrait of Lincoln’s last days, time spent as a marked man making his appointed rounds en route to his rendezvous with destiny.

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