Daniel Day-Lewis made history by picking up a record-breaking third Best Actor Oscar for his truly astonishing performance as America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln.
Steven Spielberg’s epic drama covers the last few months in Lincoln’s life, focusing on his struggle to get the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, through an obstructive House of Representatives, while beyond Washington the Civil War still rages.
The film’s chief concern is the politicians’ wheeling and dealing, though the opening scene briefly depicts the savagery of war with brutal immediacy. Lincoln is shrewd, folksy and idealistic, but also a troubled family man, struggling to deal with his depressive wife (Oscar-nominated Sally Field) and fretful eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
The supporting cast is excellent, too, with a gallery of fine character actors lurking behind profusions of facial hair. David Strathairn is wry realist William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, and Tommy Lee Jones (also Oscar-nominated) is radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens. James Spader also pops up, bewhiskered and portly, as a grubby lobbyist seeking to ensure Lincoln gets the votes he needs.
Much of this is fascinating and the actual vote on the Amendment proves surprisingly gripping, but elsewhere Spielberg is overly worthy, lapsing into moments of sentimentality that undermine Day-Lewis’s magnificent portrayal.