At first it may seem like a problem that Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is the least interesting character in Lincoln, a movie ostensibly all about him, but director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner populate the movie with so many other vibrant characters that Lincoln’s relative dullness becomes almost irrelevant. And Lincoln isn’t a traditional biopic about the life of the 16th president of the United States: It focuses on just a few months toward the end of the Civil War, as Lincoln was working to get the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery, passed through the House of Representatives.
At its best, Lincoln is like a 19th-century version of The West Wing, focused on the backroom deals and underhanded maneuvers required to get a divisive but significant bill passed through the House. David Strathairn leads the charge as Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, and James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson nearly steal the movie as a trio of unseemly operatives Seward hires to secure votes from malleable congressmen. Tommy Lee Jones provides the counterpoint to Seward’s pragmatism as Thaddeus Stevens, an abolitionist firebrand whose moral compass never wavers.
Seemingly every other scene features a new familiar face in a beard and a wig, although the minor characters do tend to run together after a while. As for Lincoln himself, Day-Lewis gives a typically intense and fully committed performance, playing Lincoln with a high, almost effeminate voice and fussy demeanor. It may be historically accurate (at least as far as anyone is able to discern), but it’s also a bit off-putting, at least initially, making Lincoln seem a little scatter-brained and aloof. Lincoln’s penchant for telling rambling folksy stories that are only tangentially related to the topic at hand is also historically accurate, but gets a little grating. At one point a military advisor storms out of a meeting, fed up with Lincoln’s latest meandering anecdote, and it’s hard not to sympathize with him a little bit.
Lincoln’s personal life is the movie’s weakest element, with Sally Field giving a one-note performance as the unstable Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasted in a tedious subplot as the son Lincoln tries to prevent from joining the Union army. The climactic vote in the House of Representatives is so rousing and cathartic (despite its outcome being a matter of historical record) that everything that comes after it (including Lincoln’s assassination) feels superfluous to the story. But the bulk of the movie is focused on the fascinating strategic maneuvers required to pass the amendment and end the war, and even if Lincoln isn’t quite the mesmerizing figure the movie would like him to be, he’s still an essential part of this entertaining and engrossing story.