The bulk of the film focuses on one crucial, but non-battlefield, moment in Lincoln's presidency: the passage of the 13th Amendment, which not only made freedom for the slaves part of the Constitution but granted them equality.
Lincoln has just been elected to his second term, and the war is starting to wind down to what has become its inevitable conclusion. Lincoln realizes that the amendment, passed by the Senate but stalled in the House, has to be approved before the conflict ends or it will be forever blocked by opponents.
Drawing in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin's bestseller "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Kushner's script gives us a ringside seat to Lincoln's maneuvering (some of it more than a bit shady) to achieve his goal. An overture of peace from the Confederates is deflected. Jobs are offered, arms twisted. He tries -- most often successfully, though sometimes not -- to move an array of colorful, passionate politicians of the day around the chessboard of Washington politics. Lincoln even grows testy with his own cabinet, divided on the issue, in a truly memorable scene draw largely from Goodwin's book.
It all culminates in the final vote on the amendment, which, even though you know how it turns out, proves to be extraordinarily gripping.
Beyond Day-Lewis' towering presence, what makes it all work is Kushner's clever, often witty dialogue and the cast Spielberg has pulled together, an array of character actors drawn from both film and television.
Tommy Lee Jones gets a showcase spot as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, the ill-tempered and sharp-tongued proponent of abolition who could derail everything with his refusal to compromise his beliefs. David Strathairn plays Secretary of State William H. Seward, who may not have Lincoln's vision but knows how to play the Washington game. Sally Field might technically be too old to be playing Mary Todd Lincoln, but she makes the first lady, often portrayed as completely mad, a sympathetic if haunted character.
Sometimes, the use of TV actors with such clearly defined personas can be a bit of a problem. It may take you a bit to accept Jared Harris ("Mad Men") as Ulysses S. Grant, Walton Goggins ("Justified") as a member of the House, Gloria Reuben ("ER") as Elizabeth Keckley and James Spader ("Boston Legal") as a political operative. But you get over it fairly quickly, and Spader, in particular, gives one of the liveliest performances in the film.
"Lincoln" does have one notable flaw. The vote is really the high point of the film, but Spielberg goes beyond that to the assassination of Lincoln. The segment is perfectly fine, but it feels tacked on, certainly unnecessary to a piece that should have ended with the moment when Lincoln leaves for Ford's Theater.
But in the end, that's a minor complaint about one of the finest historical dramas ever committed to film. It's a triumph for Spielberg, Kushner and, most of all, Day-Lewis.