It's a movie that could have been a TV special. It belongs to its writer and actors- with all the essential action taking place in small, dark rooms. What Spielberg adds is context and texture. There can rarely have been a movie that so captures the grubbiness, greasiness, tattiness of the human past. The Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady seem to have inspired the high contrast, almost-but-not-quite black and white cinematography and- in line with what we see in those images- everbody looks as though they haven't bathed in weeks. We are rarely in the great outdoors; when we are it is made to count- in a hellish opening vision of hand to hand fighting in a muddy river and- towards the end- in Lincoln's ahistoric visit to a smoking battlefield- with the dead, looking exactly like Brady's bloated dead of Antietam and Gettysburg, still lying where they fell.
Spielberg is not know for reining himself in, but he does here. If anyone says he doesn't have the instincts of a true artist then Lincoln is the answer.
Daniel Day-Lewis- gangling, arthritic, folksy, preferring to use the velvet paw but capable of flashing out like Jove- is wonderful. But so are Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. None of these people are just historical totems; they have private motives and domestic griefs and distractions. Lincoln has lost one child, is fighting with a second and spoiling a third. Mary Todd is keeping up appearances under the pressure of bereavement, guilt, physical pain and something not very far from madness. The world is a terrible mess- a flailing, floundering mudbath- and somehow out of- in spite of- this chaotic squalor- great deeds are done.