What fascinates us so much about Abe Lincoln? It can't just be the pivotal times he lived in—otherwise we'd be just as fascinated by Truman, and we're not. It can't just be his assassination, either, though its circumstances were certainly more dramatic than others.
I think it's his weirdness. You look at this guy, you learn about what sort of life and attitude he had, and to think of him as "Savior of the Union" inspires a certain cognitive dissonance. Had the Civil War been further delayed, he might have ended up as merely an oddball presidential footnote. Instead, America's favorite president is this cadaverously gaunt hillbilly who—in an illustrative early scene in Spielberg's Lincoln—tells depressing jokes to citizens visiting his office.
I was surprised by how affecting Daniel Day-Lewis's performance here was. I went in figuring it was going to be stellar, and as so rarely happens, my heightened expectations were met. Lincoln tells some four or five stories during the movie and they're among the best moments. His "now, now, now" speech (glimpsed in the trailer) really hammers home the stakes of the plot. He's the kind of Lincoln that makes you think, "I don't really even care anymore how historically accurate this is; he's just awesome to watch," like the audio-animatronic Lincoln from Disneyland, only less terrifying.
The other thing that kept me locked into Lincoln was the design. Count on Spielberg to deliver the goods when it comes to setting: Lincoln is as transportive as Master and Commander, in the filmic-time-machine sense. I'm willing to put up with a lot if it means feeling like I'm really in another time, and in this case, the occasionally opaque political story actually enhanced that sensation, in much the same way that Master and Commander's maritime lingo rarely came with any explanation.
My biggest fear going into Lincoln was that it would focus too much on the politics and not enough on the characters, particularly Lincoln. Overall I'm relieved—the spotlight's pretty evenly shared between the politics and the president. Not only do you get a strong sense of the staggering enormity of what these characters were doing (and their own awareness thereof), but also of Lincoln the man at a significant time in his life.
One signficant criticism of Lincoln I do have is that a lot of the supporting characters didn't get the screen time they should have. If this movie had come out fifteen years ago, it would've been close to four hours long. The material almost demands it. Instead, it's only 2:30, and as a result Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones only get two or three real scenes, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln Jr. has exactly one, then all but vanishes from the film.
Tertiary characters are dismissed even further. This is especially problematic for a movie with SO MANY MINOR CHARACTERS. A veritable tsunami of facial hair; whole scenes of "We must win over Congressman So-and-So and Ombudsman Yadda-Yadda." Spielberg handles the historical-figure parade well enough to prevent complete confusion, but it remains a little taxing, and leaves a feeling of unexplored possibilities. And what's the story with Captain Braxton from Voyager yelling at the president like that, and why're they holding hands later in the same scene? Is this one of those "gay Lincoln" things and they didn't want to dwell on it or something?
Maybe there's going to be a delayed-release Limited Executive Platinum Edition Director's Cut that gives Lincoln the three-hour-plus running time it should've had. For now, anyway, it's a must-see for those of us who get into historical dramas, and a worthy addition to the Serious Spielberg series.
Star Score: 4 out of 5