When John Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln, Hollywood was enjoying what might have been its highest-ever cultural sway. It was 1939, often considered the American cinema’s flagship year—the one that gave us Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, and The Wizard of Oz. Young Mr. Lincoln now looks like a monument to (or from) that time when the movies were at their most confident, full of faith in the power of cinematic artifice to capture the texture of the past and track the twists and turns of human psychology with unfailing accuracy.

Ford’s half-imagined biopic found Lincoln—as the title suggests—in the full bloom of youth. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln imagines the 16th president (Daniel Day-Lewis) in in his last few years, lugging the weight of his legacy behind him. “Do you think we choose to be born?” he asks wearily mid-film. “Or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?” It’s difficult to imagine two films better fitted to their respective cinematic times than Spielberg’s and Ford’s. Young Mr. Lincoln looked forward to an as-yet-unknown future; it closed with Lincoln donning his iconic stovepipe hat and walking off into a gathering storm. This Lincoln finds the cinema at the heart of the storm, or maybe in its wake, looking back on a past that’s less a source of hope and more a burden to be overcome with dedication and sweat. The medium’s future is just as uncertain now as it was in 1939—then, there was nothing the movies couldn't do; today, the consensus among many pundits seems to be that there’s not much left for them to do.

One look at this year’s crop of new films is enough to prove the premature undertakers wrong—I’m thinking especially of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust, Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, and, of course, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, which suggests that the cinema is at its most creative when it’s fighting exhaustion. Unlike those films, Lincoln doesn’t seem set on breaking new ground. Its visual style, courtesy of certified Old Master Janusz Kaminski, has more in common with classical painting than modern Hollywood: Lincoln and his family always come into view bathed in the surplus light cascading from their wide White House windows, and when the president lies on his deathbed, his body seems to glow from within amidst a shadowy band of mourners and well-wishers. That’s not the only respect in which Lincoln feels anachronistic. Its star performances, courtesy of Day-Lewis and a show-stopping Tommy Lee Jones, could have come straight out of method acting’s golden age. Its stubborn refusal to bring its subject down off his pedestal—in fact, its resolve to if anything reinforce Lincoln’s legacy—flies in the face of most contemporary biopic conventions. Spielberg is operating under the refreshingly un-cynical, not to mention old-fashioned, assumption that some men are really larger than life.

Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg discuss Lincoln after its surprise screening at the 50th New York Film Festival. Photo: Olga Bas.

That assumption might have given Spielberg an excuse to paint Lincoln’s life in broad strokes; instead, he has made a film that occupies itself with the nitty-gritty details of the legislative process, the marathon back-room debates, the making of deals, the painstaking eking out of votes. This is new territory for the biopic; but, like everything else in this film, it’s groundbreaking by virtue of its strong ties to the past. Like its subject, Lincoln has a streak of pioneer grit, a determination to roll up its sleeves and get the job done.

Even in the mid-19th century, Abraham Lincoln must have felt like a relic from a still more distant past, a constant fountain of folk tales and witticisms with roots in a simpler, pre-industrial America. The paradox that this man would become arguably the greatest social reformer in the history of the presidency must have attracted Spielberg, who specializes in moving forward by looking back. If the movies are to survive and flourish, they’ll need films that propel the medium onward urgently, even desperately. But they’ll also need films like Lincoln, films that reconcile today’s cinema with that of yesterday and the day before; films that remind us not only that the movies have a present, but also that—like the president-to-be at the end of Young Mr. Lincoln—they have a history capable of fueling, rather than obscuring, their progress into the future.

Read our dispatch from the NYFF50 Surprise Screening of Lincoln, featuring thoughts from screenwriter Tony Kushner. Then check out our collection of photos from the unforgettable evenings.

Accolades (So Far):
Seven Golden Globes Nominations: Best Picture, Drama; Best Director (Spielberg); Best Screenplay (Kushner); Best Actor, Drama (Day-Lewis); Best Supporting Actor (Jones); Best Supporting Actress (Sally Field); Best Original Score (John Williams)
Four SAG Awards Nominations: Best Actor (Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actor (Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Field), Best Ensemble
Three New York Film Critics Circle Awards: Best Actor, Best Screenplay (Kushner), Best Supporting Actress (Field)
AFI Movies of the Year, 2012
…and many, many more.