The title “Lincoln” might be misleading, because while there is obviously a focus on the legendary, great man, the spotlight remains on the last months of his life and the fight to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery into law. As unthinkable as this might be today, the movie proposes that there was actually a great danger that slavery would continue after the Civil War. After all, some people reasoned, they were in the final months and victory was inevitable. Why not make this compromise that would probably save thousands of lives? The movie tries to provide an answer as it shows how slavery was such a deeply ingrained part of the South that it would be unthinkable for the Confederacy to willingly surrender their human chattel, as well as the prejudice of many in the Union that couldn't even bring themselves to acknowledge them as fellow human beings.
So how do you bring such a larger than life man to the screen, yet also depict him as someone human and recognizable, while still undeniably compelling even as he struggles with what could easily become boring legal procedure? Well, for starters, you bring in an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis to do the aforementioned work of making him human and compelling. He has something in common with Meryl Streep in that he doesn't so much embody his characters; he channels them. In his capable hands we aren't merely watching a movie about Lincoln, we feel like we see the man himself.
He is old and bent, but by no means broken, and very aware of the moral and historical weight on his shoulders. He also has his little idiosyncrasies, such as when he tells quaint, simple stories to illustrate his point to a captive audience. And of course, he and those around him have paid a price for their services to the greater good. “Lincoln” shows that it's smart and subtle enough to make you feel the burden he and his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) have had to bear, as well as show the process of bringing the 13th Amendment to existence without being overdramatic.
That said, don't expect an uncompromising moral crusader. This Lincoln is a pragmatist who recognizes that he will have to make a few moral and legal compromises in the service of the greater good. Bribes? Nonsense, he's just merely offering a few nice jobs to those who are willing to give him the votes he wants. And if someone who was working for him offered money, well then he wasn't aware of it. And he decides to avoid the issue of giving slaves full equality after they are freed. Apparently, even those who hated slavery couldn't wrap their minds around that. (What's next, women voting??!!!)
And those who bemoan the corruption and partisanship of today might feel that our situation isn't so bad after they witness the dirty tricks that were required even for the best causes, as well as the insults that would routinely get thrown around by the opposing sides of a debate. Oh, and thank goodness that it took so long to actual fire and reload a gun back in the day. (A new sense of perspective can be a good thing.)
Naturally, we all know how this fight will end, and it's to the movie's credit that it still feels uplifting and even suspenseful. We see the price the nation paid to rid ourselves of a great evil when Lincoln travels to the battlefield and sees the countless bodies on both sides. After all, when you decide to right such a heinous wrong, even a compromise will result in some sort of bloodshed.
I only wish that they had chosen to focus on other aspects of Lincoln's life. There is not a single flashback to found in this film, which feels like an real shame with all this assembled talent (which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, and Jackie Earle Haley) and Lincoln's fascinating history. However, this is no fault of the film, merely the result of a movie that is so wonderfully packed with details that it would be impossible to show such care to the entirety of Lincoln's career. It should be stated that what they do focus on is sheer perfection.