As much as Lincoln is about political process, it is also (obviously) about the man himself: Honest Abe. The beauty of this film is that it maneuvers effortlessly between the legislative drama and the intimate moments where we get glimpses—thanks to Day-Lewis' remarkable performance—into the personality and character of Lincoln and his family. Much of the "iconic Lincoln" is on display here: the tall, lanky man with a scraggly beard and top hat; the unpolished frontier boy with log cabin roots (Lincoln puts his own wood logs in the fireplaces of the Oval Office). But as portrayed by Day-Lewis, he's also a natural born storyteller and jokester, an individualist who values quiet time alone and has strained relationships with members of his own family. He's a dignified man who is sober-minded and soft-spoken, but forceful and impassioned when he needs to be. Above all, he's a commanding presence; when he opens his mouth, people listen.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner wisely creates plenty of breathing room in the script for Day-Lewis to really sink his teeth into the Lincoln persona. There are great scenes of Lincoln in meetings with his cabinet, where he effortlessly rambles in a manner that is half courtroom lawyering and half grandfatherly storytime, with an eloquence of language that feels like a cross between Shakespeare and Mark Twain. He's a president who is as likely to refer to "flub-dubs" and "Tammany Hall hucksters" as he is to quote Euclid.
It's the quieter moments, however, that moved me the most; the moments when Lincoln isn't politicking or posturing, but reflecting. Grieving. Wondering why he was chosen to lead the nation through its darkest hour. "Doyou think wechoose to be born?" he asks one of aides in a particularly existential moment, "or arewefitted to thetimes we'reborn into?"
Though Lincoln's Christian faith isn't explicitly noted in the film, it is certainly clear that there is a higher truth guiding his convictions, a sovereign God who has entrusted him with an important role in an important time. Lincoln assumes this responsibility with deep reverence and humility. He is a humble man whose grief over the depth of loss his country has suffered is written all over his face—in the aged lines of his brow, in his dark, grave eyes. Like most presidents at the end of a term in office, he is grayer and more worn down by the end. And yet his resolve isn't shaken. It's a testament to the immense skill of Day-Lewis that his version of Lincoln feels at once familiar and new—consistent with how we imagined Lincoln and yet embodied in a way we've never quite seen: Lincoln the dad, the husband, the deal-maker, the joke-teller.
Spielberg shows us with Lincoln not only that he continues to be a master of epic filmmaking but also that he is a great actor's director. Day-Lewis anchors the film but he is just one of a number of excellent actors who make up the ensemble cast. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field perfectly inhabits the famously unstable first lady, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is entirely believable as Robert, the college-aged son of the Lincolns who desperately wishes to fight in the war. The various political players are aptly performed by a who's who of top-notch Hollywood actors, with the standout being Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist leader Thaddeus Stevens, for whom the Thirteenth Amendment is the career capstone of a life's work campaigning against slavery.