The film is bookended with scenes of the civil war, scenes which are harrowing and deal with the aftermath rather than the battles themselves. For such a master of spectacle you'd more than expect a dose of the epic from Spielberg but his approach is closely reined in, delivering instead a chamber piece, a quiet character study, and a courtroom drama all in one. For its treatment of the biographical genre (one of cinema's most predictable) we're given something closer to Steven Soderbergh's depiction of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara; a refreshing approach that culminates in many smaller concerns rather than hitting the average cinematic high notes.
Daniel Day-Lewis typically becomes Lincoln; like his other great roles he inhabits his subject to such a degree that we're left with an immersive performance like no other. We can never know the real Abraham Lincoln but Lewis' portrayal feels accurate and above all earnest; a quiet man with a strong heart who sits while others stand, speaks in low volumes while others command attention, and for such a man of mighty power walks hunched and without authority.
Of course Lincoln was a powerful man in his position of presidency but what Kushner highlights here is the vulnerableness of his attempts to abolish slavery. The legal system and political discourse has to be played and manipulated to the highest degree in order to secure such a tall plight. and we're taken on a murky and often humorous journey into the polluted heart of the system to be shown what strings had to be pulled in order to make this humanitarian history possible. Kushner's esoteric script does nothing to bow down to common understanding of political jargon; though the film is an easy one to be swept away with the unfolding semantics remain steadfast and undiluted throughout as the narrative flows steadily and with little rest.
Lewis is of course the focus, as he always is, but never before as he been so endangered in leaving the spotlight with the remarkable supporting cast on display. It's a pleasure to see James Spader in a sizeable film once again; an almost unrecognisable role as one of Lincoln's key (yet implicit) collaborators. He's joined by the marvellous John Hawkes who's given a less showy role to make his mark. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln's son Robert whose growing patriotic guilt sees him step into the military against his parents concerns, and last but by no means least Tommy Lee Jones as the (at times) unreadable Thaddeus Stevens - a role that's attacked with every thing this great actor has in him and one that can be argued as being the core to the film.
The juggling between the biography of Lincoln himself and the often overwhelming political planning is so admirably handled despite the sheer amount of characters and star power playing them. The scenes between Lincoln and his wife Mary (played by a dramatically heightened Sally Field) add depth and pain to the mythic man as the couple battle enduring grief and the fear of reliving it once again, while humour often creeps in largely due to Spader and Jones.
Lincoln aims for an array of notes and despite fading in and out without much of an announcement or farewell hardly fails to hit them. For a director often as schmaltzy as Spielberg it's remarkable how restrained he is in handling the most sure-fire of genres. Even John Williams' typically lyrical score plays on a modest enough level. For a film that largely takes place in dingy rooms not a shot is wasted with Janusz Kaminski's beautiful photography adding awe to the often temperate settings. The often verbosely driven scenes are captured with such dexterity and precision from Spielberg it's a pleasure to see this master storyteller operating on a level not seen in quite some time.
It's difficult to laud Lincoln as a great film despite the many examples of great filmmaking present in it but it's lack of pandering and its modest stature only fuels this compelling tale. Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant and brings weight while keeping the myth very much alive and yet we expected him to be as good as he is, it's Spielberg and Kushner who feel like the real heroes of this piece.