Four years into America's terrible Civil War, Southern surrender looks likely - but will President Lincoln end the war before abolishing slavery?
One line by Republican politician Thaddeus Stevens sums up Abraham Lincoln's historic feat - "Corruption aided by the purest man in America."
Indeed, Lincoln shows us a whole new side to the ending of American slavery, taking us behind blood-stained fields of war into the backrooms of real politics, chambers where representatives cut sharp deals, attics where lobbyists haggle 'patronage-pay', corners of grand Houses where leaders drop their bluster and name their price. This is a clever, cynical graph of the mathematics that went into Abraham Lincoln's philosophy - underlining how a great statesman was a shrewd salesman too.
In drawing Lincoln thus, Day-Lewis delivers a molten, silken performance, etched like an ivory statue whose eyes glisten occasionally at the ironies he sees. These are often lost on those around him - most notably, on his neurotic wife Mary, played by Field with edgy, brittle flair as she berates Lincoln for being coldly uncaring, imprisoning his family "within this terrible house!" His wife isn't his only challenge - Lincoln faces opposition from his party, rivals, even his staff. Here, Lincoln scores big again - despite Day-Lewis' dazzling performance, other political players come to life too, including David Strathairn as velveteen Secretary of State Seward and Lee Jones as the brilliantly blunt Stevens.
Marshalling these forces - plus a little flock of lobbyists - Lincoln induces the House to finally debate abolishing slavery. His obsession to push his idealism - even at the cost of delaying ending the war - reveals itself as deadly sharp through all that wafting smoke and shadowy silhouettes, interlaced with Lincoln's numerous meandering parables.
On the downside, Lincoln is long-winded, clutching strands - like the President's sons - that needlessly distract from its pointed political play. Its first half's slow, the second quicker but deep-set in American minutiae. Still, as one of its senators finally roars, "God damn it - I'm voting yes."