The legislative process has never been this dramatic—or this fun.

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Photo by David James – © 2012 - DreamWorks II Distribution Co. All Rights Reserved.

Lincoln feels like a movie Steven Spielberg has always been fated to make. Of course these two figures were bound to collide at some point: the most mythic of American presidents and the most myth-making of American  filmmakers. The values Abraham Lincoln has come to represent in the collective imagination—freedom, equality, justice, mercy—are the same values Spielberg has spent a career celebrating and not infrequently sentimentalizing.

Lincoln does sometimes get a little sappy around the edges. Though his project here is clearly one of conscious self-restraint, Spielberg can’t resist the occasional opportunity for patriotic tear-jerking, usually signaled by a swell of John Williams’ symphonic score. But in between, there are long stretches that are as quiet, contemplative, and austere as anything Spielberg has ever done.

In large part, this quality of austerity derives from the fact that Abraham Lincoln is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who is to other actors as Nijinsky was to other dancers of his time: He seems to be engaging in a different art form entirely. Day-Lewis’ embodiment of Lincoln is less a portrait than a sculpture. You can walk around it and see different things from different angles. The character is so fully imagined, so lived from the inside out, that we leave feeling we’ve met and briefly known, if not Lincoln himself, certainly someone real and extraordinary. This isn’t a Hollywood-style historical epic, like War Horse or Amistad—it’s history on an intimate domestic scale, Lincoln wandering the halls of the White House wrapped in an old wool blanket.

Lincoln does begin on a grand scale, with a horrific, mercifully short depiction of the realities of Civil War-era battle (a swarm of confused, frightened men hacking at one another with bayonets and drowning each other in puddles). Immediately after, we witness the 16th president at the front, greeting two pairs of war-weary Union soldiers, one black, one white. The on-the-nose parallelism of this scene—and the unlikelihood that two separate soldiers would have independently memorized the Gettysburg address, and have the presence of mind to quote it in full back to its author after a brutal battle—gets the film off to an unpromising start. Is this going to be a stiffly inspirational civics diorama?

Blessedly, we soon move into the main storyline, which focuses very tightly on the last few months of Lincoln’s life, as he struggled both to end the Civil War and to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The script by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner draws heavily (though not exclusively) on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book Team of Rivals, which is about Lincoln’s clashes with his Cabinet over how to accomplish these two seemingly complementary, but in reality conflicting, goals. Would it be better for the Union to negotiate an end to the war first, or to use the promise of peace as leverage to get the amendment passed? Is Lincoln’s primary moral duty as a leader to end the soldiers’ suffering with all possible speed, or to ensure that the abolition of slavery is permanently written into the Constitution? The moral, legal, and political questions raised by Lincoln’s Scylla/Charybdis dilemma are the meat of the story here—and if that means most of Lincoln’s moments of high suspense occur in offices and legislative chambers, well, Kushner is writer enough, and Spielberg director enough, to turn vote-wrangling and strategic political chicanery into both wry comedy and high drama.

Advised by Secretary of State William Seward (a superb David Strathairn), who despairs of his boss’s habit of first seeking, then ignoring, his advice, Lincoln tries everything to get a two-thirds majority vote, from personally strong-arming reluctant legislators to hiring a team of Falstaffian secret operatives (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) to offer patronage jobs in exchange for votes. The vision of Lincoln as a world-class horse-trader, capable of deploying slippery lawyer’s tricks in the service of lofty goals, animates many of the movie’s sharpest and funniest scenes. And though Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a surpassingly gentle, soft-spoken man, given to long homespun anecdotes and bone-dry witticisms, there are scenes in which Lincoln more than justifies his reputation among many of his contemporaries as a steel-willed autocrat seeking to usurp the powers of the legislative branch.

In its second half, the film focuses increasingly on Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a Pennsylvania congressman who’s spent his life battling for full racial equality. Stevens’ opposition to the amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough endangers its passage, and he and his fellow lawmakers square off repeatedly over the meaning and necessity of political compromise. Decked out in a curled black wig and limping on a cane, hurling poetic invective at his opponents (“Slavery is the only insult to natural law, you fatuous nincompoop!”), Jones gives a magnificent performance that should have his best supporting actor nomination in the bag. The climactic voting scene in the House chamber is a rowdy mélange of low comedy, high drama, and suspense—though we know, of course, that the amendment will pass in the end, Spielberg and Kushner have so ably orchestrated the stories of multiple sought-after votes that each “Aye” or “Nay” plays out like a miniature cliffhanger.

The movie’s depiction of its president’s enigmatic domestic life is only intermittently successful. There are some blisteringly honest scenes between Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), his depressed, resentful, but politically savvy wife. The portrait of the Lincolns’ marriage is remarkably complex, especially in the scenes where she rebukes him for insufficiently mourning their dead son. We see how her bottomless neediness and his core of emotional reserve made for a toxic combination, but we also sense their deep love for each other. I never quite believed in the storyline about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Lincoln’s oldest son Robert, who insists on enlisting in the Army against his parents’ wishes—their Oedipal squabbles seemed familiar from too many other, lesser movies. But the tender, lively relationship between Lincoln and his adored youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), runs through the movie like an animating spark, with the boy racing through Cabinet meetings to leap on his ever-tolerant father’s lap. An early, quiet scene in which Lincoln finds his child sleeping by the fireside, lies full-length next to him and kisses him was the movie’s “had me at hello” moment for me—from that point, I could tabulate its flaws as it went along while still loving every minute of it.

Well, all but the last few minutes, in which we see not quite Lincoln’s assassination but a related event taking place at the same time. I admire Spielberg’s choice to conclude on a note of indirection and discretion: Ending on a tableaux vivant of the well-known facts of that night at Ford’s Theatre might have been both dramatically inert and crass. But I think the film should have ended even earlier, on a long shot (beautifully framed by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) of the lanky, stooped president walking alone down a hall of the White House, on the way to take his wife to the theater on April 14, 1865, five days after ending the bloodiest war in the nation’s history. We all know what happened next—and given how much we love this man we feel we’ve come to know, it’s sad enough just thinking about it.