Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is the kind of film that fully satisfies such lofty desires, and not because it’s a gassy, overwrought, sentimental spectacle with an obtrusive John Williams score. It’s actually none of those things, but rather a highly literate, and meticulously atmospheric portrait of a complex man and the rancorous political climate in which the final months of his presidency played out. More specifically, it's a terrific political thriller about Lincoln's quest to get the 13th amendment through Congress, thereby abolishing slavery in America forever before the Civil War ended and the returning Confederate states were able to overturn the Emancipation Proclamation. There's plenty of impassioned speechifying on the floor of Congress, with highly entertaining flourishes of 19th century rhetoric (screenwriter Tony Kushner adapted and embellished the actual words of the key Congressmen) and the incidental pleasures of playing Spot the Character Actor Behind that Facial Hair with James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and Jackie Earle Haley in memorable supporting turns. Tommy Lee Jones probably has a Best Supporting Actor Oscar all tied up; his portrayal of radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stephens is shot through with the actor's own familiar gravitas and charisma.
But ultimately, of course, it's all about the man, Abraham Lincoln. That Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificent in the title role is not surprising in and of itself, yet I was unprepared for just how completely he rescues Lincoln from the folksy, railsplitting plaster sainthood of American legend. His Lincoln is equal parts prairie sage and shrewd political manipulator, impressively presidential and wearily melancholy in almost the same moment, exuding both integrity and vulnerability. It's a performance that manages both to affirm the legend of the man and allow us to peek behind the legend to see his sadness, his affection for his sons and his complicated feelings towards his difficult wife (Sally Field, who's effective but a good twenty years too old for the part.) In that respect, above all others, Lincoln feels like an exceptional achievement.