Do you think political wheeling and dealing is a recent development? Think again! This peek into the sausage factory we call Washington D.C. makes crystal clear why it is vital for Abraham Lincoln to wrangle passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (which frees the slaves) BEFORE the Confederate States surrender, end the American Civil War and rejoin the Union.

The Republicans in the Senate have already passed it, so now it's up to the House to ratify it and send it to the President for his signature. The battle for votes is between the staunch Segregationists (the Democrats) and the Abolitionists (the Republicans), with three Stooges, ...er... three legislative "whips" who apply Republican pressure to achieve that critical two-thirds majority vote.

Even though we all know the 13th Amendment passed, it is still fascinating to see what kind of skulduggery was involved in its passage. (Did I mention sausage factory? C'mon, do we really want to SEE what goes into sausage?) Be warned, there are a LOT of speeches, but Lincoln keeps interjecting his little anecdotes and homilies, so that breaks things up as we go. And we see him apply pressure, authorize patronage jobs, and pay out-and-out bribes because he knows the world is watching. It's fun to realize that the telegraph is the e-mail of its time.

As to the cast, when Director Steven Spielberg makes a call, Hollywood answers. This is the most astonishing collection of A-List actors I have seen since the golden days of MGM:
  • Daniel Day-Lewis ("Nine") uses Lincoln's high voice and rare wit and there are times his makeup is excellent, however at other times he looks very, very tall but not consistently. I'm always fascinated by Day-Lewis's nose: when he faces south, his nose faces southwest.
  • David Strathairn ("Alphas") is Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln's right-hand man: pragmatic, intelligent and loyal.
  • Tommy Lee Jones ("Hope Springs") portrays Representative Thaddeus Stevens, an uncompromising Abolitionist leading the Republican charge against slavery. He may have to modify his totalitarian views in order to get the necessary numbers on his side.
  • James Spader ("Boston Legal") has a great time bringing comic relief as one of the three lobbyist/connivers who will stoop to anything to help Lincoln pass that amendment.
  • John Hawkes ("The Sessions") is, as always, completely convincing as one of the three rascals who perches in the House of Representatives' gallery, tracking votes.
  • Tim Blake Nelson ("Big Miracle") is the third arm-twister, helping to bring pressure to bear for President Lincoln's ground-breaking 13th Amendment.
  • Jackie Earle Haley ("Dark Shadows") We see that Representative (from the South) Alexander Stephens has traveled north to end the war, but he is stunned to be stonewalled.
  • Lee Pace ("The Fall") finally has a role to fit his enormous talent: Representative Fernando Wood is an eloquent Democrat who makes several heart-felt pleas in support of slavery.
  • Jared Harris ("Mad Men") plays General Ulysses S. Grant, strategizing with the President to end this hellish war but only AFTER the amendment passes. Lincoln explains the legalities involved, he is, after all, a lawyer.
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Premium Rush") is our hero's son Robert Todd Lincoln, who is determined to drop out of law school and enlist in the Union army; Mom and Dad don't agree.
  • Hal Holbrook ("Water For Elephants") is Francis Preston Blair (as in Blair House) who makes a trip down south to offer a truce.
  • David Oyelowo ("The Help") is an educated corporal in an all-black battalion fighting for the North...AND his freedom.
  • Sally Field ("The Amazing Spider-Man") is Mary Todd Lincoln, trying to cope with the death of a son and chronic depression.
  • Gloria Reuben ("Law & Order") is Elizabeth Keckley, a boon companion and loyal employee of Mary Todd Lincoln.
  • S. Epatha Merkerson ("Law & Order") plays Lydia Smith, who makes a surprise appearance right near the end.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You will recognize face after face as battles are waged, both in the smoke-filled chambers of Congress and on the muddy Civil War battlefields. A lot of the legal "action" involves the intricacies of Roberts Rules of Order. The two-week delay during the struggle for passage of the amendment and the surrender of the Confederacy is a heart-breaker for Lincoln, because he knows Americans on both sides are dying every day.

By the way (Spoiler Alert!), despite Screenwriter Tony Kushner's best efforts, Lincoln's personal story does not have a happy ending. Maybe I should warn you....
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