In 1865, Abraham Lincoln faces two interlocking crises; can he get the numbers in Congress to pass an amendment permanently abolishing slavery, and can he negotiate an end to the murderous Civil War?
If the amendment is passed, the carnage may drag on. If the amendment is not passed, then the Southern States are free to continue slavery after the peace is declared, but the war will have achieved nothing.
Much rests on the personality of the President.
Spielberg's film focuses on that personality, as Lincoln struggles to be true to his moral compass. The problem is, he says, that while the compass may point you to true North, it says nothing about how to deal with swamps and hindrances along the way. Unruly parliamentary scenes, and horse-trading for votes suggest that some of those swamps remain unchanged.
Daniel Day Lewis rises magnificently to the challenge of portraying a complex man who presents himself as ordinary, an intelligent man, whose method of persuasion is to tell stories, a family man, devoted to an unstable wife, still grieving over the death of a son, and determined to protect her remaining children from the war, and a principled man, who misleads Congress by telling the truth, but not the whole truth, to pass the amendment abolishing slavery. He catches the tall bony stature of the man, his body language portraying pain and tension.
Sally Field's portrayal of Lincoln's grieving passionate wife is memorable – perhaps her most compelling role ever.
All of this is played out within the context of a devastating Civil War, which Spielberg brings to life in set pieces of carnage and destruction.
This is a film that portrays how the smaller canvas of human interactions impacts on the wider canvas of war and peace, and how one person can change the future of a nation.