Steven Spielberg’s epic new biopic “Lincoln” opens on a panorama of Boschian horror, black and white soldiers hacking away at each other with guns, bayonets, knives, black and white hands clinching black and white throats. All men are created equal, it seems, to the work of the killing fields.

The next scene reflects in a way on the first. Two black privates pause at a busy Washington intersection, eager to share their war stories with an inquisitive civilian. “We were in the 116th Colored, sir, now we’re with the 2nd Kansas Colored,” one says with pride. But the other soldier, impatient with pent-up anger, interrupts him. Blacks are fighting alongside whites, all right, but not for the same pay and promotions. “Maybe in 50 or 100 years we’ll see a colored officer,” he says with bitter irony.

The camera swings around to witness the reaction of the civilian, who, it turns out, is the president, sitting alone, inspecting troops. The camera movement is simple, but the moment is astonishing. In his appearance, bearing and speech Daniel Day-Lewis so completely embodies the 16th president that it is as if we have turned a 19th-century corner, in our 21st-century cinematic time machine, and stumbled on the great man as he prosecutes the war.

The time is January 1865. The action in Tony Kushner’s brilliant screenplay focuses on the president’s lofty ambition and nut-and-bolts campaign to pass the 13th Amendment. It must be done now, the president insists to a skeptical cabinet and a fractious House of Representatives, whose resistance is both racial and tactical. Why now, and for that matter, some ask, why ever?

Because, as Lincoln explains, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 might not have been legal, and in any case might not have the force of law once the war is over. Now is the time, he thunders. “We must cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war. This amendment is that cure!”

Mr. Day-Lewis’s performance has been rightly acclaimed. In his lilting voice, his speeches – quoting Euclid, Hamlet and Falstaff as well as the folksy parables of his youth – his mannerisms, even the slow, stooped, shambling gait he effects, like a puppet with his head perched forward like a bird’s, he wondrously transforms himself into the president.

But “Lincoln” is no one-man show. Far from it, the movie is replete with great performances. Special call-outs and possible Oscar nominations go to Tommy Lee Jones as the fierce abolitionist and sly chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Thaddeus Stevens; Hal Holbrook as the influential advisor Preston Blair; and James Spader as Bilbo, one of several wily operatives hired by Secretary of State Seward to procure the “yes” votes the president needs.

Their cynicism is brilliantly captured in an early scene as Seward explains the rules of the game.

Seward: The president is never to be mentioned, nor I. You are paid for your discretion.

Bilbo: Well, you can have that for nothing. What we need money for is bribes.

Seward: No, nothing strictly illegal.

Bilbo: Congressmen come cheap. A few thousand bucks would buy you all you need.

Seward: Your president would be unhappy to hear you did that.

Bilbo: He’ll be unhappy if we lose.

The real surprise, however, is Sally Field. As the manic, shrewish, haunted Mary Todd Lincoln she equals Mr. Day-Lewis in their scenes together, including a bedroom shouting match so charged in its intensity, intimacy and bitterness that it is hard to watch.

Mr. Kushner gives the cast plummy speeches with Shakespearean cadences that roll through the White House offices and parlors, the War Department hall, the House chamber and the backrooms and muddy roads of Washington. Notwithstanding the movie’s rich and almost unceasing dialogue, two of the most affecting scenes, when Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox and when Lincoln inspects the dead at Petersburg, are silent.

What makes the movie especially convincing is its meticulous attention to detail. Spielberg and his crew recorded the ticking of Lincoln’s watch, the creaking of chairs he used, the squeaky suspension of the carriage he rode to Ford’s Theater and the chime of the clocks in the White House dating back to Andrew Jackson’s day. Experts helped Mr. Kushner and the cast accurately recreate the scenes, drama and dialogue of mid-19th century America, even to the different way some words were pronounced, such as “dee-moc-ra-cy” and “right-ee-ous.”

But as Northwestern historian Kate Masur has pointed out one major error: The movie’s black characters are mostly wooden, stock symbols of suffering and redemption. “Lincoln” thus squanders an opportunity to demonstrate how blacks – including two who served the president and first lady in the White House – vigorously advanced their own cause during the war.

Still, the opening scene makes the point eloquently. Blacks fought and died for their freedom. Missed opportunity aside, this is a fiercely compelling tale of our nation’s most perilous and bloody chapter and a worthy portrait of our greatest and most beloved president.

Running time: 150 minutes.

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...