But Day-Lewis is far too wily an actor to simply give us a stooped, woebegone Lincoln and leave it at that. He employs a high, wavering voice (apparently historically authentic) as a subtle, wheedling instrument. Lincoln’s Shakespeare-quoting country lawyer act, often involving the spinning of folksy yarns to the eye-rolling exasperation of his listeners, is an artful guise. He is fully capable of rage, but he parcels it out opportunely, when no other option will do. Lincoln’s complicated attitudes toward slavery and the emancipation of blacks are streamlined and cleaned up for popular consumption (as opposed to, say, their treatment in Gore Vidal’s controversial novel “Lincoln”), but there is one scene near the end that I’m glad made it into the movie: Asked by Mary’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), whether he accepts blacks as equals, he equivocates by saying he does not know her or her people, but that, since, like everybody else, they are “bare, forked animals” (a reference to “King Lear”), he will get used to them. This tarnish to his halo has a welcome sheen. It desanctifies him.
Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is the spiritual center of the film, but he’s ringed by a multitudinous cast of characters, including David Strathairn as trusted Secretary of State William Seward; Sally Field as ramrod-tough, clinically depressed first lady Mary Todd; and, most scene-stealingly, Tommy Lee Jones as the incendiary, imperially grumpy abolitionist Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.