Steve Spielberg (right) alongside writer Tony Kushner (center) and Richard Peña. Photo by Godlis

Unrecognized in the VIP balcony box at Alice Tully Hall last night, writer Tony Kushner sat alongside his husband and fellow-writer Mark Harris. The two watched quietly as attendees arrived in the auditorium for the surprise 50th New York Film Festival screening of Lincoln. Kushner, well-known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, spent some six years working on the film, re-teaming with Spielberg after last writing Munich.

Up in the box last night, Kushner seemed at ease but also excited to screen a work-in-progress version of the film for the sold-out crowd. After asking me for some tips about other NYFF films to catch this week, he looked out over the large crowd and added, “I can't believe Steven has never been here.” I paused for a moment, puzzled.

“This is his first time at the New York Film Festival,” Kushner added.

Film Society Program Director Richard Peña acknowledged Spielberg's New York Film Festival debut noting that the filmmaker first appeared on the Film Society's radar when an early short of his screened at New Directors/New Films back in the 70s.

“Years later,” Peña added, “He's finally made it!”

Staged with grand on screen theatricality, Lincoln features a deep cast roster, many of whom were on hand last night to wave to the crowd from the balcony of Alice Tully Hall. Daniel Day Lewis stars as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays their older son Robert Todd Lincon. Also appearing are Tommy Lee Jones and Jared Harris, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Healey, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg, as well as David Strathairn.

Adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin's acclaimed 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln offers an in-depth look at the final four months of Abraham Lincoln's life and presidency as he seeks to end slavery and the American Civil War draws to a close. A sort of West Wing set in a mid-1800s White House, Lincoln details the political machinations pursued by the President and his advisors as they try to pass the 13th Amendment.

Of course, Lincoln arrived on screen last night at a unique historical moment, just four weeks ahead of Election Day.

Steven Spielberg, concerned that his movie might become a political football, said that he wanted to release the film after the election. Writer Tony Kushner, however, seemed more open about engaging the topicality of the movie. He recalled working on rewrites for the film as he watched election returns on the night that President Barack Obama was elected four years ago.

“I watched the Obama presidency very much through a Lincoln lens,” Kushner explained last night, “Working on the screenplay has really changed my politics and made me think much more seriously about the process of electoral democracy and I recognize that radical change can happen through true democratic means.”

Spielberg reiterated that last night's version of Lincoln is unfinished. It will have its world premiere as the closing night screening of LA's AFI Fest in a few weeks and open theatrically on November 9, just three days after Election Day.

Packed with engrossing political melodrama and layers of relevance, Lincoln captures the President's struggle to pass the 13th Amendment. In doing so it evokes President Obama's healthcare intiatives or, even more overtly, the recent battle for marriage equality.

“The movie is the movie,” Kushner continued, “But I think it's been extraordinary to watch what I consider to be a great president in action while working on a film about a great president in action.”

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (@filmlinc) and a founder of indieWIRE. Follow him on Twitter at @eug.