There's nothing stentorian or over-the-top about Daniel Day-Lewis's portrait of Abraham Lincoln. He's a listener. He bides his time. When you finally get him in full flow, everything else in Steven Spielberg's bustling pageant of a picture hushes up to hear what he has to say, which is sometimes charmingly waffly, but urgent with it.
His voice is high, reedy and a little quavering, with advancing age in it, and an ability to gather rhetoric with such still authority it takes you aback. The key to him is that he's not larger than life but almost smaller: stooped, usually seated, and playing the role with a compassionate poker face, one which subtle spikes of rage puncture from within. It's a little tiresome to describe Day-Lewis as brilliant, so let's push the boat out: his Lincoln is absolutely wonderful.
And Spielberg's Lincoln? Not too shabby, either. We might have feared something clattering and bloated, one of those vague whistle-stop tours from cradle to grave. It's long, but it's also focused and robust, with one crucial battle on its mind, rather than the whole war of its hero's life.
That battle is his fight in January 1865 to get the 13th amendment through Congress, abolishing slavery once and for all. Crucially, this has to be done before the cessation of hostilities renders the idea politically superfluous. The Civil War is groaning to a close, with peace commissioners all but ready to board the river-boat to Washington. Lincoln seizes his last chance for legislative reform - to make winning the war really mean something, and set in stone freedom for black Americans with the legal binding which his earlier Emancipation Proclamation lacked.
The commodity he most needs and least possesses is time. "Time is a great thickener of things," he says to his Secretary of State, William H Seward (David Strathairn). "I suppose it is," replies Seward. "Actually, I have no idea what you mean by that."
Tony Kushner's bravura script pokes a lot of fond fun at all the stuff Lincoln comes out with. He also writes Day-Lewis some potent speeches, Shakespearean in their pensive intelligence, around the two monosyllabic words that sum up his immediate agenda. This. Now.
For a thematically hefty, Oscar-tipped prestige picture, it's commendably steeped in the nitty-gritty of legalese, too. You could see it as dramatising a key moment in American realpolitik, but it takes shape more immediately as a kind of indoor war film. With customarily terrific cinematographer Janusz Kaminski as his guide, Spielberg roves around the trenches of Congress, bristling with verbal bayonets and the corpses of notable careers. There's something particularly daring and counter-intuitive about the encroaching enemy in a Civil War picture being peace itself.
Tommy Lee Jones gives a reliably grumpy performance as Thaddeus Stevens, acidic spokesman for the abolitionist cause. You watch inspiration strike like lightning when he's called upon to disavow equality among human beings, and does so by impugning the IQs and even the physical attributes of those haranguing him, without one reference to African-Americans.
Lincoln's home is hardly any less of a minefield, thanks to its lamplit clutter and the doomy tirades of his wife, Mary. Sally Field lunges a bit hard to locate her anger, but certainly lands some blows, and the seemingly wonky casting - she's 10 years older than Day-Lewis, playing a character 10 years younger - is thoroughly justified.
The movie's an all-round showcase of wiggy American character acting, with almost everyone on good form - though Michael Stuhlbarg indulges one needlessly hammy explosion when he's called upon to vote.
Spielberg has never had a great instinct for endings, and the curse strikes again here with a coda that feels a little trite: other characters gaze at great, living Lincoln for the last time as if competing to be his obituarist. This is a false step, but hardly a ruinous one. Lincoln confidently exorcises a theme its director has been fumbling his way around from The Color Purple (1985) through Amistad (1997), and he's never directed a more sensational star turn.