As the title character of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," Daniel Day-Lewis is tall and elegantly stooped, with thatchy gray-black hair and a grin that tugs at his mouth whenever he tries to win someone over by telling them a good story. Day-Lewis’s performance has a beautiful gravitas, yet there’s nothing overly severe about it. He gives Lincoln a surprisingly plainspoken, reedy high voice that makes him like sound Will Rogers as a professor of human nature.
Lincoln, which Spielberg has directed from a lyrical, ingeniously structured screenplay by Tony Kushner, is one of the most authentic biographical dramas I've ever seen. But that doesn't mean it's a stiff-jointed history lesson. The movie is grand and transfixing. It plugs us into the final months of Lincoln's presidency with a purity that makes us feel transported as if by time machine.
Most of it unfolds in January of 1865, when Lincoln already knows that the North is going to win the Civil War. Before that can happen, though, he’s driven to pass the 13th Amendment, which would outlaw slavery.
The Democrats hate the amendment, and even Lincoln's liberal Republican comrades want him to delay the vote. Only Lincoln grasps the stakes: that once the Civil War is over, the amendment won't pass – it will be killed by the Southern states. Only by threading the amendment through the eye of a legislative needle can he change the course of history.
As the Congressional fight rages on, Lincoln seduces, cajoles, begs, and tyrannizes, and Spielberg stages this masterful political gamesmanship with a kind of stately suspense. The Lincoln we see here is that rare movie creature, a heroic thinker. And the movie places us right inside his experience – shut up with his cabinet in the drab meeting rooms of the White House, or in his bedroom with the ambitious, haunted Mary Todd Lincoln, played by a furiously good Sally Field.
As a movie, Lincoln is never less than gripping. But it's also a stirring paradox, a dream of history, as it might truly have happened.