So, I'm not sure how I'll feel about this movie in a couple of days, a couple of months, or some years down the line, but goddamn, my impression after seeing it tonight is that it's handily the best film this year, the best performance of Daniel Day-Lewis's career, and Spielberg's best movie in a couple decades or so, possibly one of his top five. It's not flawless; the ending is pretty great, but it might have been a tiny bit greater if it ended five minutes earlier, and one of my favorite actors alive, Michael Stuhlbarg, delivers a pretty unconvincing performance. But other than that, holy shit did I love this movie.
There's two things this movie has on its mind, and it pulls both of them off utterly. The first is to present Lincoln as both the great man and as a down-to-earth actual human being, which they nail. The degree of difficulty in Day-Lewis's work is staggering, but they got the right guy. And I think the key is that Kushner and Spielberg had decided that his humanism was the very core of his greatness. Watching him make the decision to prolong the war to get the vote through was the scene that clinched it for me, but his big scene with Tommy Lee Jones, the stuff with his family (Sally Field really pulls it off too, and I hate her usually), the excellent scene with Gloria Reuben on the steps, and his all-cards-on-the-table night before the vote meeting are all just master class. But most of all he captures the humanist genius that drove Lincoln. This is a heroic characterization on the level of Atticus Finch.
The second thing this movie is all about is presenting the American democratic process, in all its weaknesses, shady deals, and biases, as a great and virtuous thing. It might have a lot to do with the post-election buzz, but to me this seemed like the biggest love letter to government and congress I've ever seen. Despite being riveting and consistently very funny (all credit to a great, nomination-worthy James Spader performance), the whole movie is ultimately ennobling and made me feel downright proud of the checks and balances.
What's more amazing is that it's so unlike Spielberg in its execution. Well, that's not quite right, it's got his pacing, camera placements, and his ability to entertain an audience in spades, but there are practically no obvious Spielberg flourishes. The stuff you didn't like in Amistad is gone, from the obvious emotional cues to the amber glow of importance to the forced 'movie' moments. OK, there's still a John Williams score that is a bit on the nose, but its relatively restrained. In fact, the whole movie is quite restrained for Spielberg, but this, of course, makes it all the more effective. The great Tommy Lee Jones stuff comes the closest to traditional crowd pleaser Spielbergery, but it's all so entertainingly performed that it's entirely welcome.
And the cast! Everyone is in this, and they're all great (save Stuhlbarg, I'm afraid). I was very pleased to see a huge role for Breaking Bad's David Costabile, and he knocks it out of the park. James Spader and Tommy Lee Jones are as killer as you've heard. I could truly go on and on about this ensemble, and this movie. I'm an easy mark for Spielberg, Kushner, Day-Lewis, and also American history, so I expect I'll be on the extreme end of reactions here. Suffice to say I loved it. Best time I've had in the theater since Inglourious Basterds.