If you’re the kind of person who actually has a favorite president, there’s a good chance it’s Abraham Lincoln. Few historical figures are as enigmatic as America’s 16th commander-in-chief, who led the nation through periods of both extreme crisis (the Civil War) and radical hope (glimmers of racial equality via the 13th Amendment). In the sweeping, touching, and surprisingly funny Lincoln, Steven Spielberg focuses only on the final, politically charged months of Honest Abe’s life, adapting only a fragment of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 best-seller, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Still, this intimate portrait feels holistic in a way most historical dramas don’t, shedding light on versions of Lincoln most history books glance over: the charming storyteller, the mourning father, the reluctant trailblazer, the conniving political strategist.
Though Spielberg’s film happens to be set to the backdrop of the nation’s bloodiest war, this is far from a war movie. Lincoln opens with gritty images of battle—soldiers stabbing each other in the mud and stepping on each other’s heads—but it quickly cuts to an exchange between Lincoln and a handful of soldiers. While two young white men struggle to impress the president (Daniel Day-Lewis), fumbling to quote the Gettysburg Address, one black Union soldier confidently recites the speech word for word, urging Lincoln to make good on his proclamation that “all men are created equal.”
That verbose scene sets the template for the rest of Lincoln, a film that’s more talk than action, focusing on the president’s struggle to balance what’s best for the “all men” and what’s best for “all men” in the United States. Secretary of State William H. Seward (a charmingly dry David Strathairn) argues that it will be impossible to pass the 13th Amendment and end the war—the rebel troops won’t surrender, knowing it would mean the end of slavery—a sentiment echoed by everyone else in the president’s cabinet. But Lincoln has a vision, literally—early in the film, he describes to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), a mysterious dream of sailing in blackness aboard an empty ship, fearlessly pursuing an unknown destination. The destination, Mary Todd proclaims, is the 13th Amendment. She’s right: Though everyone around him pleads that his aspirations are too ambitious, Lincoln pushes forward, using every scheme and ounce of charisma to realize his vision.
At two and a half hours, Lincoln is a long film, but it feels like a lifetime, in a good way. And most of that credit goes not to screenwriter Tony Kushner’s screenplay (which unfurls rhetoric-heavy dialogue at such a rapid-fire pace that it’s difficult to keep up) but Daniel Day-Lewis. It may be a cliché to claim that an actor actually “becomes” their character, settling into their role like a new skin. But here, it’s true. Most Great Acting happens in the small moments, within the small details—knowing a character’s body language and the subtleties of his expressions. As he did in his Oscar-winning role as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis does with Lincoln: None of us have ever seen Lincoln move or heard him talk, but Day-Lewis creates a distinct impression that feels eerily familiar. Though this is a dialogue-driven film, we learn what we know about Lincoln through his gestures and his physicality—his warm eye contact, his patient stroll, his high, reedy voice (which sounds not entirely unlike Bob Dylan).
Lincoln’s star-studded supporting cast is equally crucial. Though his scenes are few and fleeting, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wonderful as the eldest Lincoln son, Robert, a Harvard Law School dropout who enlists in the Union Army, much to the chagrin of his mother. Field goes for broke as Mary Todd, standing toe to toe with bully congressmen and grieving for her dead son, Willie, who died at age 11 of typhoid fever. One arresting scene takes place in the Lincoln bedroom: Mary Todd pleads with her husband not to let Robert enter the war, promising that, upon her son’s death, Lincoln will have to throw her in the loony bin. The effect is spine-tingling.
But for all its emotional weight and endless dialogue, Lincoln is also surprisingly fun. The president demonstrates his law-school charm by telling long, humorous stories (like a particularly amusing bit involving Ethan Allen, British royalty, and a bathroom-hung portrait of George Washington), and belly laughs come in droves as a trio of operatives (including the mischievous James Spader) use every swindling tactic in their playbook to secure 13th Amendment votes.
Lincoln isn’t a perfect film. Though we occasionally see the president struggle with the political repercussions of ending slavery, Spielberg and Kushner rarely offer insight into Lincoln’s complex personal relationship with the issue. Nonetheless, Lincoln is a flawed triumph, defined by Day-Lewis’ note-perfect performance. Spielberg doesn’t show Lincoln’s assassination, but he shows the aftermath—Lincoln’s friends and staff crowded around his deathbed. Day-Lewis is captivating, even as a corpse. Even in the silence, as the camera lingers on Lincoln’s face, that great man’s vitality and courage speak volumes.