Some movies succeed, at least partially, because of their script; some because of their casting; some from their overall look; some for no reason that I can discern. But it's rare to find a movie that succeeds on all levels. LINCOLN is that.
Much has already been writing about Daniel-Day Lewis's preparation for the role of Lincoln. He had nothing to give him Lincoln's voice, but old letters and news articles mentioned its light timbre, as well as Lincoln's habitual gestures, gait, and mannerisms. Day-Lewis uses all such information to create a Lincoln less deep-voiced than the movies have given us in the past: more tentative, sadness present even during his wry and funny stories. The actor seems to disappear entirely--especially if you've seen him in much different roles in MY LEFT FOOT or THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS-- and to become the sixteenth president.
Nor is this Lincoln the always-virtuous "Honest Abe" of sentiment. Here he has a job to do, and it's not winning the war--by the time the movie opens, in January of 1865, the war is pretty much won. The movie focuses on four months, January to April, during which Lincoln schemes to get passed the thirteenth amendment, outlawing slavery. To this end, he schemes, delays, intimidates, bribes, and outright lies. Lincoln as wheeler-dealer could rival Lyndon Johnson. He is ably aided by Tommy Lee Jones as a wonderful Thaddeus Stevens, who is such a strong character that the movie could equally well be called STEVENS.
The two face a terrible choice: Ending the war as soon as possible will save lives but will also bring Southern states back as voting members of Congress, in which case the amendment will never be passed. Refusing the South's offer of peace buys time to garner Congressional votes but prolongs the bloodshed. That this horrific dilemma is made visceral and tense--even though of course the audience already knows the outcome-- is a tribute to Tony Kushner's script.
If you see only one movie this holiday season, it should be this one.