If the golden-light-blasted, flushed-cheek sentiment of War Horse represented a kind of Hollywood cuddle apotheosis, Steven Spielberg at his Steven Spielbergiest, and if that level of extreme comfort food viewing is the very sort that makes you want to claw your own eyes out (I'm not in that camp, just for the record; I shed one or two when that horse came home), then you'll be really happy to know that Lincoln is, mostly, its opposite. In fact, it rejects the grand gestural sweep and scale of the most revered president's entire life (too much to tackle, even for a director who routinely goes big) and focuses on the last four months of it, as Honest Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis) tries, by any means necessary, to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed and slavery abolished. That wonky enough for you, Rachel Maddow viewers?
Of course, the filmmaker isn't above employing a bit of bait and switch in the opening moments, delivering a brutal, bayonet-intensive Civil War battle that'll remind you of Saving Private Ryan. But it's over soon, a contextually important appetizer right before the real meat of the meal: the slow walk with a quiet but daring man as he tries, by any means necessary, to convince his country to do the right thing. This is the bulk of the story and it happens painstakingly, with pressure and bargaining and backroom deals, with digressions into ornate, long-winded folk wisdom (funniest line of dialogue: when a member of his cabinet shouts, "NO! You're going to tell a story!" before running off), with asides to an increasingly troubled Mary Todd (Sally Field) and assertions of power in the face of people who didn't even recognize his authority (all parallels to today's extremely divisive national discourse are easily checked off). That means there are speeches. So many speeches.
And what acrobatic speechifying it is. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner's (Angels in America) richly wordy screenplay is the MVP in this public policy nerd's dream of a film. Everybody talks. A lot. They orate and cajole, they thrust and parry, they push you into history with a kind of hypnotic energy that doesn't subside until Lincoln's inevitable assassination. They talk so much you'll wish the theater had a rewind button so you could make them go back and say your favorite parts again.
Surrounded by, seemingly, every single working actor currently alive (including a respect-worthy turn by Tommy Lee Jones, portraying Representative Thaddeus Stevens as a scorched-earth sarcasm machine) this is still Daniel Day-Lewis's show. He's unshowy yet mesmerizing, serious and funny, fully absorbed into the role, making you forget you're watching an actor, turning any future Oscar race into an irrelevant afterthought. Another in a series of career high points for both the actor and director, the film performs a function most history teachers can't pull off, commanding you to sit quietly and attentively to a story whose ending you already know, enveloping you in the most entertaining lesson you never thought you wanted.