Lincoln is not what I expected it to be, nor what it’s being marketed as. This isn’t a biopic of our sixteenth President. It doesn’t depict the log cabin youth, nor follow his development over the years. Most of the movie’s action takes place within one month. And it isn’t even solely about him, devoting just as much time to a strong cast of supporting characters, as well as the important events of the time. And yet, paradoxically, the way that director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner pull this off, they build a better portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a man than any solely biographical portrait could ever have been. And in the process, they, along with the greatest acting ensemble gathered for a film in ages, have created one of the best movies of the year.

The story takes place in January of 1865. The Civil War rages on, despite the fact that everyone on both sides of the North/South divide is completely fed up with it. Lincoln has just been elected to his second term, and wants to seek a quick resolution to the conflict. But he has another goal: the abolition of slavery. And these two things might be mutually exclusive. The Northern populace was in favor of freeing the slaves as a measure of undermining the Southern economy and ending the war, but as it looks like peace might be reached, far fewer want to see blacks with equal rights. But Lincoln knows that this is the right thing to do, and thus he pushes forward with the Thirteenth Amendment. The movie follows the efforts of Lincoln and his political allies and operatives as the House vote on the Amendment looms.

First and foremost: Daniel Day-Lewis is staggering in this film. This role feels like the culmination of all his years of refining his infamous acting methods. This doesn’t feel like a performance – Day-Lewis simply is Abraham Lincoln. No, I don’t know how the real Lincoln acted, but so complete is Day Lewis’s physical, affectational, and psychological transformation that he is well and truly another person.

And this character is amazing. To see this Lincoln and is to understand his immensity as a leader. I don’t subscribe to the Great Man Theory of history, but this is unquestionably a Great Man. And yet this greatness comes not from booming oratory or swagger, but from quiet, intelligent strength. Some have mocked Day-Lewis’s (historically accurate) higher-pitched voice, but that’s not an obstacle at all. This Lincoln is a storyteller, a grandfatherly figure who conveys deep empathy towards even his most bitter enemies. He has few Big Speeches to give (the Gettysburg Address is recited to him by several soldiers) but many small anecdotes, to the point where it almost becomes a running joke (one of the other characters even comments on it with exasperation). His manner makes him entrancing to watch and listen to.

And yet the movie does not deify the man. It recognizes that some of the actions he took during the war are questionable, such as his possible abuse of his war powers as president. His machinations to ensure that the Amendment passes consist half of open honesty and half of covert skullduggery, as his operatives bribe and push their way to winning over the Representatives whose votes are needed. He even jeopardizes peace negotiations with the South in the process. But this is the nature of politics, and Lincoln is just as much about politics as it is about this one man and this particular point in history.

Politics are messy and often unsavory, but accomplishing something good and lasting involves working with this system. By the general standards of democracy, since the majority of the people were not in favor of emancipation, it should not have happened. But Lincoln and his allies knew what the right thing to do was, and worked for that end instead. That’s the truly beautiful thing about government, that it can drag us towards a better future, whether we want it or not. It’s utterly appropriate that this movie has been released so close to Election Day.

The fact that a movie, and a historical movie at that, which is all about the minutiae of political maneuvering is so endlessly riveting is a small miracle. Tony Kushner’s script keeps up a constant suspense. It establishes the stakes early on: Lincoln needs to secure the votes of number of Democrats in favor of the Amendment in order for it to pass. It then closes the vice as the deadline approaches. And interweaved with this main plot are subplots concerning the war and Lincoln’s family life, and yet the tension never lets up, not even at the final vote, even though we know the outcome. It’s been almost forty years since Jaws, and Spielberg still knows how to keep an audience on pins and needles.

A major factor in keeping the viewer invested in these proceedings is the movie’s sense of humor. This is unquestionably the most unexpectedly funny film I’ve seen all year. The best way to make history come alive is to make create empathy for the people who lived it, and there’s no better way to do this than to let the audience laugh with them. Lincoln’s stories, the vicious and creative invectives hurled between dueling members of Congress, and even simple situations like a race from the Capitol to the White House all raise beautiful laughter.

But there’s an even greater reason that all this works: the cast. Despite how monumental Day-Lewis is here, this isn’t his show. He’s the binding center of an astounding net of actors. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, addled by mental instability yet unwaveringly strong and challenging to her husband. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, utterly loyal yet never ceasing to be Lincoln’s more pragmatic advisor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, who chafes against his father as he seeks to join the military. James Spader as William Bilboe, Seward’s chief operative in courting Democratic votes, who is wry yet passionate. John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as Bilboe’s contemporaries, in small but well-rendered roles. And that’s not even getting to Lee Pace, Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Cross, or David Costabile. Or even Jackie Earle Haley, Walton Goggins, and David Oyelowo, whose appearances are minimal and yet who all leave strong impressions.

But the most vital supporting role goes to Tommy Lee Jones as Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, an avowed abolitionist who was usually too radical for Lincoln, but who became his chief ally in the fight for the Amendment. Stevens is by far the funniest character, spewing withering insults at his opponents like a PG-13 Al Swearengen. But he’s also a deeply compassionate man who has to wrestle between what he knows is right and the compromises he hates to make in order to accomplish what’s right. Some of the most emotionally resonant moments in the movie come from him. Day-Lewis is getting all the attention here, but Jones has done a spectacular job of his own.

The only big flaw is that it drags out longer than it needs to, skipping forward unnecessarily to Lincoln’s assassination when it should have just stayed focused on the events with the Thirteenth Amendment. But that’s only a hiccup. Otherwise, it’s a near-impeccable production from top to bottom. Steven Spielberg catches flack often for the perceived sentimentality in his films, but that’s really just people being uncomfortable with earnestness. But at his best, that earnestness speaks powerfully to our non-cynical sides, and this is unquestionably among his best. It’s far, far from being Amistad 2.

Lincoln has only one, very brief, battle scene, and doesn’t have a scope that extends much further than a select part of 1865 Washington D.C. And yet it is a genuine epic. It’s one of the most patriotic but least jingoistic movies that I’ve ever seen, an ode to the great things American democracy can accomplish that is nonetheless completely realistic about how what Thomas Jefferson called “The Great Machine” really works. Abraham Lincoln embodied the qualities that allowed him to work with this machine, and this is what this film captures so beautifully.