Just as the recent Denzel Washington film Flight wasn’t really about flight (at least in an airplane), don’t go into Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln expecting a biopic of our 16th President, from his log cabin days to his assassination.

But whatever you do (again, as with Flight), DO go into it.

Anchored by an absolutely riveting performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and wonderfully-restrained direction by Spielberg, Lincoln focuses primarily on just one month of the President’s 56 years.

In January 1865, the freshly-reelected Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is staring at a country mired in its fourth year of a bloody war and fractured on the issue of slavery; nine months after the U.S. Senate voted in favor of a proposed Constitutional amendment banning slavery, the House has yet to follow suit.

Lincoln resolves to secure passage of the 13th Amendment and, just to make things interesting, end the Civil War, too– no mean feat in a climate where (at best) they’re considered mutually exclusive.

What follows is a study of government and politics that should be required viewing for every American. Sure, the thought of watching two hours of rich, white, bearded men debate legislation may seem about as exciting as an evening of C-SPAN, but Lincoln is easily one of the more entertaining and flat-out excellent films of year.

Beginning with Day-Lewis and continuing through the balance of the all-star cast (that includes Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, and David Strathairn), Lincoln is a testament to how compelling performances can marry with a brilliant screenplay and one of the finest directors to form a movie that is instantly timeless and universally relevant.

The script by Tony Kushner (Munich) is based on a portion of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Full of both archaic (though time-appropriate) witticisms and brilliant soliloquies, it’s a master-class in making the past approachable and essential.

The power of Lincoln, though, rests squarely on the shoulders of Day-Lewis, whose ability to effortlessly offer an utterly believable portrayal of the President is astonishing from his first moments on screen. There won’t be a single moment where you’ll believe this is the same person who once played Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher, and Christy Brown.

High praise also goes to Spielberg and to his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose masterful use of light and shadow (along with a fierce prologue battle scene) will surely earn him a sixth Oscar nomination, and also to composer John Williams’ plaintive and restrained score– a welcome return to greatness after the bloated mess heard in last year’s War Horse.

Spielberg wisely held the release of Lincoln until after the recent election to prevent its use as propaganda for either side. Now that we’re (hopefully) done hearing about things like “the 47%” and birth certificates, we can remember a time when politics wasn’t such a dirty word.

Back-room, closed-door proceedings have never been more fun to watch, and grandstanding (for all the right reasons) never more entertaining.

5/5 stars