You think you’re not going to be surprised by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham “Lincoln” — you’ve seen the photographs, you know he looks right — but the first full shot of him in Steven Spielberg’s majestic “Lincoln” may well take your breath away.
There he is in silhouette, the light behind him: the long profile, the bearded chin, the stovepipe hat, the careworn face. He looks weary (we watch him grow older in this film, though its time span is brief), but he speaks with a quiet kindness, in a surprisingly light, high and almost singsong voice that whispers of his Southern heritage. He seems folksy, deliberate, and wise; someone we’d like to know, someone we feel we already know. This is movie magic — history coming to life, before our eyes.
“Lincoln,” which primarily focuses on the fight to end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery) in early 1865, is a history lesson, but one caught in the soft light of gas lamps.
The story is told through a series of memorable faces: Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), the former slave who was Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidante and who quietly watches everything; Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a fiery representative from Pennsylvania determined to see the end of slavery (and not above calling people “fatuous nincompoops” in the process); William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), the secretary of state who still feels keenly the loss of the presidential nomination to Lincoln; the men in the telegraph room during the 13th Amendment vote, sending out news that will change the course of their country.
The movie feels restrained and dignified, free of Spielberg’s frequent tendency toward the sentimental (except in the too-good-to-be-true portrayal of Lincoln’s youngest child). Its long running time moves along quickly but never feels rushed; Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner tell their story efficiently, but give it room to breathe.
“Lincoln” is crammed full of characters and story, but much of its pleasure is how it zooms in on two people who are rarely alone. Sally Field is haunting and vivid as Mary, a strange, intense woman grieving a dead child and never forgetting that her revered husband once “threatened me with the madhouse.”
Day-Lewis, once again, disappears into a role and makes it his own. You see the weight of history on his stooped shoulders; how he tosses it off when playing with his young son and picks it up again, like a burden he knows no one else should carry, when he returns to his work. He’s no saint, but here he’s clearly a hero.