I went to see Spielberg's Lincoln last week. It's actually a very un-Spielberg, un-Hollywood film, and not what I was expecting at all.
Rather than attempting a full-on biopic (perhaps starting with a teenage Lincoln, sweating in the midday sun, splitting rails) or even telling the story of Lincoln's presidency, Spielberg and his team have opted to focus on five days early in Lincoln's second term, during he which he scrambled to pass the thirteenth constitutional amendment, outlawing slavery, through the House of Representatives (the Emancipation Proclamation had already passed; Lincoln wanted to embed it in constitutional law).
The result is a movie long on political machinations and intricate legal arguments, and rather short on drama and emotion. Not that's it's totally lacking in the latter qualities but you do feel at times as though you're watching an unusually well-produced BBC or NPR historical re-enactment. I mean, I found it fascinating, most of the time, but even for someone like me, who actually enjoys reading about this stuff, it was hard not to drift away at times.
But there's still a huge amount to enjoy and admire, owing particularly to the decision of the filmmakers to present a real human being at the centre of the drama, rather than a frozen icon, which is what Lincoln is always in danger of becoming. In this they are greatly helped by the subtle genius of Daniel Day Lewis. (The other great performance in the movie is by Tommy Lee Jones as the spitfire abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.)
Two excellent commentaries are worth reading: David Brooks writes beautifully about the movie's nuanced appreciation of the relationship between morality and politics. Adam Gopnik points out that although Lincoln is these days celebrated as a conciliator and compromiser, the point about him is that on the biggest issue of all - the Union, and thus slavery - he refused compromise (in fact there's a reasonable case to be made that he should have compromised - that he shouldn't have taken the nation to war).
The film is ostensibly based on Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin's comprehensive and popular account of Lincoln's presidency. This is puzzling to me, however, because Goodwin's book devotes no more than two or three pages to the passing of the thirteenth amendment. She clearly didn't regard it as a pivotal point in Lincoln's presidency. Team of Rivals doesn't even mention Thaddeus Stevens, who plays such a prominent role in the movie, or relate the story of the vote-getting in anything like such detail. So which other sources were Spielberg and his writer Tony Kushner relying on? And in what sense can Lincoln be said to be "based on" Team of Rivals?
UPDATE - very interesting perspective on these questions from an historian.
UPDATE ii: Also fascinating: interview with Tony Kushner.