"Lincoln" is one of those rare projects where a great director, a great actor and a great writer amplify one another's gifts. The team of Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner has brought forth a triumphant piece of historical journalism, a profound work of popular art and a rich examination of one of our darkest epochs.

The opening shot sets the tone. Confederate and Union soldiers fight hand-to-hand in a quagmire, uniforms so muddied it's hard to see who is killing who. It's a brutish battle for noble ideals, and the key to the story.

This biographical epic presents the final four months of Lincoln's life as war in Washington's trenches. Lincoln aims to govern a bitterly divided nation despite mutinies in his own ranks and hostile opposition. His goal is passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and he batters it through with arm-twisting, bribery, misinformation and strategic compromise. This is no fawning portrait of an idealized leader, but a deep study of a pragmatist with an open mind and a searching conscience.

As Lincoln, Day-Lewis delivers a multidimensional performance of great conviction and dignity, aided by direction that sidesteps cliché at every turn.

The camera first discovers Lincoln from the back, as he greets a knot of rain-soaked Union troops. Here he's all Uncle Abe folksiness, dispensing a kind word here and a joke there. Day-Lewis' voice is thin and reedy, which jibes with historical accounts but subverts our expectations. His attitude makes listeners lean in, and so do we, magnetized by his kindly reserve.

That kind of charisma is strong political capital, and Lincoln uses it sagely. He reasons that since his Emancipation Proclamation had no legal force over state laws, Congress must prohibit slavery before the South's imminent surrender and return to the union. That means outmaneuvering the chamber's racist Democrats and wooing radical Republican abolitionists who see their president as a milquetoast compromiser.

These scenes are good drama and surprisingly good comedy. Kushner's screenplay is a bit stagebound, with too many entrances and exits, but his scholarship and candor are impeccable. He showcases Lincoln's wit, but also shows that his Cabinet could get damned tired of the cracker-barrel anecdotes.

Lincoln's adversaries resemble juicy eccentrics from Dickens. Lee Price is a blowhard delight as grandstanding Congressman Fernando Wood, who denounces Lincoln as "Emperor Abrahamus Africanus the First." As Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent anti-slavery Republican, Tommy Lee Jones growls and glowers like an old lion. His strained formal meeting with Sally Field's Mary Todd Lincoln is a little minuet of polite mutual disgust.

Lincoln's other foil is his son Robert, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The college student is determined to prove himself by entering the war that his father detests. Still grieving two sons lost to disease, Lincoln is not about to sacrifice another to the bayonet. Their strained relationship leads to one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in a Spielberg film.

Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski avoid the sort of Norman Rockwell pictorialism that would have sentimentalized the story. They alternate from shots in dark interiors half-lit by gas lamps to hazy panoramas of the wilderness outside, establishing a distinction between civilization and the terrifying, untamed beauty of the American frontier.

The director's work here runs parallel to his restrained, mature best in "Schindler's List." He avoids easy formulas, triumphing through directness and conjuring nerve-racking suspense from long-settled history.

Lincoln loathed slavery but was ambivalent at best on the question of the natural equality of the races. When the freed slave who is his wife's maid asks him what place he hopes America will have for its black citizens, he hedges. For such honesty, we must be grateful. Spielberg doesn't construct a waxworks tableau about social problems. He shows people wrestling with them in the mud and makes us wrestle them, too.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186