Steven Spielberg

Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Abraham Lincoln in the film “Lincoln.” (Photo courtesy of DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox)

Steven Spielberg has made plenty of films about war, films like “Saving Private Ryan”  and “War Horse” that have painted alternately horrifying and moving pictures of the great American conflicts. “Lincoln” is his first film about making peace. A healthy dose of biopic tendencies (elements?) and a stirring performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular president result in a pedigree that basically screams “Give me Oscars!” Thankfully, “Lincoln” is more than that, a surprisingly specific and engaging look at one of Abraham Lincoln’s most important acts in the White House — passing the 13th Amendment and ending the Civil War.

The film takes place in a very small window of Abraham Lincoln’s (Day-Lewis) life, just after his re-election as president. The Civil War continues to tear the nation apart, and before the inevitable peacetime comes, Lincoln is determined to pass the 13th Amendment, which would ban slavery. With the help of cabinet member William Seward (David Strathairn) and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Lincoln sets about gathering up the votes necessary to push the amendment through.

Spielberg’s last collaboration with screenwriter Tony Kushner gave audiences the divisive “Munich,” and “Lincoln” is a more accomplished work in almost every way. Both films lack Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality, but “Lincoln” has the added challenge of making congressional bureaucracy into a compelling story. However, Spielberg brings some immediacy and importance to the story and even manages to wring suspense out of something as simple as counting votes, never letting the viewer get lost in the many historical figures on screen.

Perhaps the most interesting result of Spielberg and Kushner’s collaboration is the picture that emerges of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln has become a major part of the American mythos, and it could have been easy to coast on that established knowledge without ever gaining any insight into the man himself. Thankfully, Kushner and Day-Lewis bring such a measured, likable sense of purpose to Lincoln, never failing to humanize him but also never forgetting what a monumentally important figure he is in the political landscape.

This Lincoln is a spectacular orator, a storyteller at heart. He can spin a yarn to make a point, calm a crowd or win a vote, and the people around him are alternately entranced or infuriated by Lincoln’s endless supply of anecdotes and parables. Day-Lewis turns in an expectedly transformative performance, and his Lincoln is full of depth and passion, warmth and humor.

Jones has one of “Lincoln’s” larger roles as Thaddeus Stevens, a rigid abolitionist whose extremist opinions are as threatening to the amendment as the more conservative views across the aisle. Jones spells out some of the film’s key themes: the slow pace of political progress and the need for compromise to get anything done. It’s a message that seems resolutely pointed, a reminder about today’s politics as much as it is an illustration of the past.

The film is packed with familiar faces, and almost everyone Lincoln encounters is an accomplished character actor swooping in for a quick grace note. The film’s cast is absolutely stacked, and actors like Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, John Hawkes and James Spader all bring something to the table. On the other hand, the film’s cast can get a bit distracting, as many scenes are simple guessing games of who’s going to turn up next. Often, it’s a pleasant surprise, but sometimes it can be extremely jarring. For example, Adam Driver from “Girls” shows up for a bit part, and it’s hard to pay attention to Lincoln’s anecdotes when you’re flashing back to one of Lena Dunham’s trademark mortifying sex scenes.

It’s interesting that the biggest rising star in “Lincoln” is easily the film’s weakest link, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt had to make a career misstep sooner or later. Not that he doesn’t do fine, noble work as Lincoln’s oldest son, but his scenes grind the film to a halt and never manage to rise above perfunctory. Gordon-Levitt is a strong, likable presence, but his role seems shoehorned in and lacks any sort of payoff.

“Lincoln” is the type of film that practically oozes pedigree, but it’s far from the snoozer many might expect. It’s not just a showcase for Day-Lewis, not just a snapshot of a specific moment in American history and not just a portrait of one of our country’s greatest presidents. It’s a spectacularly acted, immaculately constructed piece of entertainment, and with a premise as dry as “Lincoln,” that’s about the highest praise you can give.

Movie: Lincoln
Director: Steven Spielberg
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 149 minutes

“Super 8” stars Kyle Chandler, newcomer Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning as the residents of a small town facing a mysterious presence.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

J.J. Abrams has a maddening tendency to oscillate between almost transcendent poignancy and superficial enigmas. Perhaps best known for his TV show “Lost,” his monster movie fake-out “Cloverfield” and his successful directing in 2009’s “Star Trek” reboot, Abrams has established himself as the one of the more credible sci-fi-leaning auteurs. But at his very best, it’s not at all about a mysterious island or intergalactic space wars — it’s about the characters that inhabit these worlds.

You wouldn’t find a better-sketched character than in a J.J. Abrams production. While we always manage to get an exceptional narrative and emotional payoff from his characters, the science fiction story he sets them in often gets muddled to the point of futility. “Super 8,” his first movie to both write and direct, is his fluctuating brilliance writ large.

It’s also like a giant piece of fan mail: Steven Spielberg, Abrams’ childhood idol, serves as a producer on the film, and his influence is apparent throughout. Many of the sequences in “Super 8” are Abrams trying to create the kind of classic movie moments Spielberg has famously built his career around. While he earns a few great moments that stay with you, he stops short of Spielbergian brilliance, never quite eliciting that movie magic. Abrams’ next, granted it’s without someone like Spielberg’s guiding presence, will be his true test — to see what he can do other than pay tribute to his hero.

Set in the 1970s, the story is tied to Abrams’ childhood of shooting amateur films on 8-millimeter, or Super 8, cameras. Joe (newcomer Joel Courtney, who will have no trouble finding work after this star turn) works with his best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) to make a movie to submit to a local film festival. Rounding up their group of friends, they convince the reclusive school beauty Alice (Elle Fanning, who proves again how better a performer she is than her sister Dakota) to play their lead actress. Together, they sneak away in the night to shoot at an out-of-the-way train station.

While shooting, they witness an explosive train wreck. After the crash, they hear something clobbering its way out of a train car. Before they can investigate, a military convoy swoops in, quickly taking over the kids’ small Ohio town with little explanation. From there, bizarre things begin happening: all the dogs in town run away, people go missing and electronics, from toasters to car engines, vanish without a trace.

Among the uninformed is Joe’s father and sheriff’s deputy, Jackson (Kyle Chandler, who wrings a terse, affecting performance with a small role), who is suspicious of the train crash and the military’s involvement. Joe and his father’s relationship has grown tense since his mother died in an accident — tenser by Joe’s flowering relationship with Alice, whose miscreant father has been a serious thorn in Jackson’s side.

Joe’s relationship with his father and Alice are the emotional core of “Super 8,” and with Abrams at the helm, they and all other character relationships flourish. These characters, so fully-realized, well-drawn and lifelike, are the most compelling aspect of the movie. Abrams’ script is wrought with tenderness, flashes of humor and a knowledge of how to get us to trust the characters’ backstories without hesitation.

The monster mystery, meanwhile, is less elegantly handled. As with any good mystery, the best part is the anticipation, not the reveal. Abrams knows this well and frames some genuinely tense scenes of that shadowy, monstrous figure lurking off-screen.

The final reveal is a self-fulfilling disappointment, but also beside the point. It doesn’t matter what came out of that train car as long as the buildup to finding out is gripping. Here, finding out the answer to this mystery is too formulaic and offensively lame. The story places these far more interesting characters into situations in which they can interact with one another, but the imbalance between story and character is too stark. You stop caring at all about the whole story before the third act and just wish these great characters could do something else.

Unlike the science fiction element of the movie, you can tell the characters were more carefully managed. It would never work without its cast of young actors. Made up mostly of newcomers, this is the most enjoyable group of movie children since “The Goonies.” Their camaraderie is infectious and strong enough to carry the bulk of the movie.

It’s difficult to know how much better, if at all, a movie “Super 8” would be if it hadn’t had the monster-thumping-in-the-shadows side to it. A movie about the emotional relationship ties between friends, much less children, is a hard movie to sell; harder to even get someone to put up the money to get it made. It’s one mystery more for Abrams.