It's a complement to Daniel Day-Lewis who embodies all the trademark characteristics we think of when we think of Lincoln and a few more we didn't know: his high-pitched voice, his masterful "under-the-table" negotiations and manipulations. Lincoln was a masterful storyteller. His seemingly rambling fables were so commonplace that, at one point, the impatient Secretary of War, smelling a long-winded recantation, makes an early retreat. Yet, Day-Lewis exudes Lincoln's gifts: his ability to capture to hearts and minds of any who would listen. His stories, which at first might feel completely irrelevant, suddenly become potent allegories with the power to influence the strongest of wills. Day-Lewis remains graceful in his pacing, speaking each sentence with pitch-perfect timing and confidence, never allowing our attention to waver, always keeping us spell-bound to know what he would say or do next. He's mesmerizing to the point that you can understand why so many people were drawn to him.
There are many scenes that establish Lincoln's brilliance. There is a secret discussion between him and abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens (quietly hidden in the cellar, naturally) where Lincoln shares Stevens' (Tommy Lee Jones) desire for complete racial equality, but explains that the public will only embrace one small step at a time, starting with abolition as it was described in the 13th amendment. Anything more radically challenging would likely have undermined everything.
To procure the Democratic votes needed for a 13th Amendment, Lincoln had his regime promote the law as a means of crippling the Confederacy and ending the Civil War, even though the war was on the verge of ending. During these Congressional debates, Lincoln held secret negotiations with Confederate V.P. Alexander Stevens (Jackie Earle Haley), who was prepared to surrender should slavery be retained in the South. Lincoln's refusal to negotiate with the Confederacy before their surrender at Appomattox Court House meant a pro-longed war could that cost thousands more lives, including endangering the life of his own son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The exploits of the Amendment battle include many supporting players including Lincoln's allies in his quest like his loyal Secretary of State (David Strathaim) and adviser Francis Blair (Hal Halbrook).
This may be Spielberg's greatest collection of talents and performances in his career. It's almost impossible to think that Spielberg was going to give Lincoln to Liam Neeson—a fine actor—but not up to snuff with what Day-Lewis delivers. His Lincoln is quiet, reserved, calculating, and leads with a soft but unwavering touch. During quiet moments when Lincoln is pensive, it's impossible not to be spell-bound by him.
Sally Field also fares well as Mary Todd, Lincoln's emotionally fragile wife. There's only so much for her to do other than berate her husband's decisions to prolong the war and condoning their son's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desires to enlist in the army. The family drama is sidelined for the politics, leaving the two to sit by the sidelines and bear witness to Abe's history-making. The brief interludes between husband and wife seem like another story; one that should be reserved for a three-hour epic that could add some meat to Lincoln's personal trials.
The real side-draw is Jones’s Senator Stevens, whose cantankerous verbal pokes at his Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives are some of the film's highlights. His opposing views with Lincoln beg for debate, and he engages real-world ideas for how change can be introduced to society. Jones is even afforded his fair share of emotional satisfaction, including the film's climax that adds a brand new layer to a Stevens, who, by all accounts, was even more radical than Lincoln ever was.
It's a testament to Spielberg for making Lincoln and referencing many political arenas that are hot debate topics in today's world—the idea of government's role, the fine-line between change and appeasement, the holes in the political discourse. But, as Spielberg tends to do, he exudes a heavy-hand, foregoing subtlety with outright message hammering. It's nowhere near as forced as Amistad or even Saving Private Ryan, but it's evident that one repeated diatribe toward slavery's evils could have been supplanted successfully with more meat to Lincoln's personal trials.
Technically, this film is a marvel to behold with historically pristine sets, costumes and candlelit lighting. For a film devoid of action (save for a short Civil War opening battle), there's a lot for the senses to ingest whether it be Lincoln's offices or the details of the White House bedrooms. John Williams' score is surprisingly strong and reserved. Spielberg allows it to come to life only during key moments. There are even speeches in which you expect Williams to sound the trumpets, but they keep it at bay. Thankfully.
Like many, I felt the film could have ended five minutes before it actually does. There's something powerfully moving about seeing Lincoln stroll the White House hallway one final time--his solemn, instantly recognizable silhouette leaving behind a legacy with each step he takes. His final words to his staff bear more poignancy than any grandiose speech Spielberg could add as a final curtain call. By the penultimate scene, we're already convinced that Lincoln was a great man, this was a great film (Spielberg's finest in over a decade) and Daniel Day-Lewis deserves yet another Oscar.