1. The opening scene of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln will probably ring false to you and confirm your preconceptions of a sweeping, soft-focus, John Williams-scored Steven Spielberg film about Abraham Lincoln. It features Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, visiting troops right before a fierce Civil War battle. Lincoln is already revered by his army—as David Edelstein memorably put it, he's "already halfway to a memorial"—and fawned-over to the point that he might as well be animatronic Robot Lincoln. At one point, soldiers actually quote the Gettysburg Address to him. But give the movie a second: Spielberg knows what he's doing. We see this Lincoln the way we see Lincoln now so that we start the film knowing who we're dealing with: A Lincoln who knows his own power and knows how to use it. This movie is not about Lincoln the orator or Lincoln the hero. It's about Lincoln the power broker. His skilled use of that power, Spielberg argues, made him heroic. By the time it was over, damned if I didn't agree with him.
2. Lincoln focuses on a narrow window in Lincoln's life, basically the last few months of the Civil War. Lincoln knows that he's about to win the war, and that the public has tired of all the carnage, but he doesn't feel he should let the South off the hook—he needs to rid the country of slavery through constitutional amendment, the 13th Amendment. The problem is that, in a situation that consciously echoes our current day, the House of Representatives is firmly against him, as are many of his own advisors. Convinced that if he doesn't rid the country of slavery now that no one ever will, he forges ahead, wheeling, dealing, flattering, blackmailing, cajoling, whatever it takes, to get his amendment passed. Lincoln, at its core, is a political procedural: It wants you to understand how the sausage gets made.
3. This is, Spielberg argues, what constitutes real courage, what is truly heroic: Getting shit done. This Lincoln digs his heels in and isn't afraid to bend the rules a little bit, most notably hiring three "influencers" (a.k.a., thugs) to push around his opponents to make sure they vote the way he wants. (These influencers are played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson, and their scenes provide consistent laughs.) Lincoln is shown as a manipulator of people, but not in a sinister manner: He understands the compromises one must make to accomplish great things, compromises that can be made as long as one's eyes never waver from the ultimate goal. He works with his political rivals—most notably Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful House member and fierce abolitionist played with giddy crankiness by Tommy Lee Jones—and his own staff, as if time is running out on him. He is, in the purest sense of the word, a politician. Spielberg argues that this designation is not something of which anyone should be ashamed.
4. This is not some behind-the-scenes, The Real Dirt view of Lincoln: The movie argues that even in his time, he was as iconic as he is now. (He even already had his picture on money.) This Lincoln uses that status to get what he needs. We see a bit of Lincoln-at-home, specifically dealing with his mournful wife and the son desperate to crawl out from under his shadow, but this is a familiar Lincoln, with a new spin: We don't get under his skin as much as we do feel the warmth and intensity of what it must have been like to be around him. Much of this is due to Day-Lewis' performance, which is refreshingly straightforward: He hints at the pain below the surface but makes sure that his Lincoln is always lit up, always aware of his significance and his effect on people. It's an incredibly charming performance. This is exactly what I want to imagine Lincoln being like.
5. I know I've probably made this sound dull, a bunch of politicians yelling back and forth at each other, but Spielberg is a master entertainer—maybe the best—and he infuses everything with his trademark sense of wonder: He knows how to keep you locked onto everything he's doing. (The script by Tony Kushner is studiously organized yet consistently witty: It seems to be having a grand time with all this.) This isn't any sort of traditional biopic, with grand statements and sweeping gestures and "hey, look, it's a historical contemporary of the subject!" (This would be called the J. Edgar problem.) This simply looks at a great man and tries to show what, deep down, made him great. Its big emotions don't come until the end, and then only sideways, surprising us with just how invested we really were. (A scene involving Lincoln's son is one of the most wrenching scenes Spielberg's ever shot.) Great men are not simply dropped from the heavens, waving a wand and changing the world. They have to work at it within the constraints of their time and their universe. Lincoln's true genius was being able to overcome those constraints while still keeping them in place, with just his fundamental decency and self-awareness to keep him moored. Lincoln argues that America works because of its divisions, because it's difficult to get things done. When something does break through, and legitimately changes the world, it's because of hard work, sacrifice and sweat. That's what America is supposed to be about. Lincoln is a lot of things, but more than anything else, it is deeply, profoundly patriotic. Only Spielberg could balance careful realism and a big heart like this. It's enough to make you feel downright optimistic about this country, goddammit. It makes you think we can still do great things.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.