The opening scene of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln depicts a Civil War battle scene: scrappy, muddy, bayonet-to-bayonet fighting, a brutal slog over contested terrain. The rest of the film concerns something equally scrappy, muddy and messy: politics, specifically, the hard-fought battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States.

Based in part on the book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Goodwin, Lincoln is less a traditional biopic of our sixteenth president than a snapshot of one specific episode in his story—his last few months of life, at the start of his second term as U.S. president and in the final days of the Civil War. As the film begins, Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated role) is visiting Union troops and hears a handful of soldiers recite excerpts of what had already become an iconic presidential oration: the Gettysburg Address. The president—haggard, war-weary, solemn—listens intently as a black soldier recites the speech's final line as he marches back to join his regiment: "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom …"

This preface appropriately sets up the film's main conflict: Lincoln's efforts to make good on that "new birth of freedom" by convincing enough congressmen in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln's conviction on the matter is evident from the start: he believes abolishing slavery is a necessary step to move the country forward in unity. But politics being the complicated game that it is, ...

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