Director Steven Spielberg originally intended this biopic to be a much more expansive look at Lincoln’s presidency; instead it concentrates on just four months in 1865, when he pushed the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, outlawing slavery and bringing an end to the Civil War.
Abe is played with understated, folksy authority by an Oscar-nominated Daniel Day-Lewis, and there are outstanding performances from Sally Field, who risks an unsympathetic role as the First Lady, and Tommy Lee Jones, relishing the rich dialogue as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens.
The president is notably absent from the boorish barracking of the House – where an impressive ensemble of bewhiskered character actors holds juicy, eloquent sway – instead, he telegraphs his wishes via trustees such as Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn).
The bulk of Lincoln takes place indoors, where cinematographer Janusz Kaminski paints chiaroscuro with candles and gaslight, making the glimpses of war all the more stirring for their scarcity. Marked by oratory, anecdote and verbal jousting, Spielberg’s epic plays like The West Wing in stovepipe hats, and although it may be a little stolid for some, the film brings to life a moment of 19th-century political brinkmanship in captivating style.