The best thing Steven Spielberg has done for Lincoln is to stay out of its way. There's hardly any Spielberg-ian imprints here; if you didn't know it was directed by him, well, you wouldn't know it was directed by him.
Daniel Day-Lewis, impeccably portraying our 16th president, is rightfully the one in charge, commanding each shot he's in not only with his remarkable resemblance to Abraham Lincoln but also with his approach to the role. With a high-pitched and softly scratchy voice, Day-Lewis imbues the character with warmth, wisdom and a mellow lightheartedness that provides many gentle laughs throughout the film's 150 minutes. And speaking of those 150 minutes, they improbably fly by, a sign as reliable as any other of a very good, if just short of great, film.
The director's stamp is found in only one obvious aspect of Tony Kushner's script, and that's the relationship between Lincoln and his youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath). After the president, filled with angst, discusses with his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), his proposed bill that would end slavery as well as the Civil War, he walks into a room where Tad is sleeping and scoops him up onto his back to put him to bed. When the bill is finally put to a vote, he's in his office with Tad on his lap, reading with him a book about insects.
Lincoln's relationship with his older son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a bit pricklier, because Abe and Mary Todd do not want him to enlist in the military. But when he tells his father that it's something he feels he must do, Lincoln gives him his blessing and sends him on his way, knowing he's going to face the wrath of Mary Todd afterward.
And what wrath it is. The first lady is a tiny ball of fire unafraid of her stately husband, bitter about Robert's enlistment as well as sorrows that occurred years before. It's a welcome and completely believable side of the actress that we've never seen, and as such Field fits right in with a terrific cast whose standouts include not only Day-Lewis (sure to get the Oscar nod) but also Tommy Lee Jones (as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee) and David Strathairn (as Lincoln's secretary of state). Though Lincoln himself is often amusing, it's Jones' Thaddeus Stevens who provides the most laughs, mixing insights with insults that bite like a viper.
After a brief battle scene opens Lincoln, the film is all talk, focusing on the debate on whether to ratify the 13th Amendment and negotiations to end the war. Throughout, the president regales his audience with stories, and stories interrupting stories, to his great amusement and the occasional eye-rolls of others. After the bill is passed (depicted by a somewhat tedious vote count), someone remarks to the president, "You're 10 years older than you were a year ago." Considering we still see our leaders so much grayer and more wrinkled when they leave office than when they were elected, the line rings true.
And somehow, this mound of dialogue works. Day-Lewis' performance is undoubtedly a sizable contributor to the film's speedy pace; you can't take your eyes off him whenever he's on screen, and never become aware of an actor "acting." The dynamic between Lincoln and Mary Todd is another engrossing factor, a car crash at which you can't help but gawk; its tension is too real. And though the scenes involving Lincoln and his sons are also noteworthy, they aren't Spielberg-sentimentalized; rather, they come across as a natural snapshot of a regular family.
That Lincoln was anything but regular while being portrayed as humanly as possible is perhaps the movie's greatest achievement. This president earned his place in history, and so shall the film.