Daniel Day-Lewis can be so scary. He seems like a nice enough, soft-spoken guy in rare interviews and awards show appearances, but in movies he's often so intense, so coiled with rage or hurt or lust, that it's frightening. Even his borderline goofy turn in his last film, Rob Marshall's mostly disastrous musical Nine, wasn't without an air of standoffishness. He's a brilliant actor, but by no means a comforting one. We go to Brad Pitt movies to sink into the seat. We go to Daniel Day-Lewis movies to be prickled awake with tension. Which is why it's such a surprising delight to watch him in Lincoln; his performance is as gentle and warm and inviting as the bulk of his other work is jangling and robustly off-putting. Quieting the surrounding swirl of a Steven Spielberg prestige drama with mere gestures and huffs of breath, Day-Lewis does exactingly good character work in a film that, despite its good intentions and stately execution, occasionally borders on thumping, pedantic history lesson.

Day-Lewis' Lincoln is fifty-five and hunched, the top of his tall frame curling down, head stuck out like a buzzard. He speaks in a weary but still forceful crinkle, his tones fatherly and professorial, with a few "ain'ts" and dropped g's friendly remnants of his humble Illinois roots. This Lincoln is at his most endearing and homey when he's telling a story, which screenwriter Tony Kushner has him do often, to both comic and rousing effect. What really makes the performance so captivating, though, is that it isn't fussily mannered and alienating the way, say, Joaquin Phoenix's busy work in The Master was earlier this season. No, this Lincoln fellow, as Day-Lewis portrays him, is decidedly human, a Big Important Historical Figure no doubt, but also a real man who sits quietly reading in the evening, who is affectionate with sons and staffers, who clearly aches with an only barely muffled sadness. That sadness was Lincoln's famous "melancholy," and while it is not an integral part of this movie's story, it informs and strengthens the motivations of Day-Lewis' (and Kushner's) character nonetheless. Slavery, the terrible war, and the recent death of his son Willie have all broken Lincoln's heart, and yet we see also in Day-Lewis' eyes and in his hushed croak, a deeper and less circumstantial despondence. We then watch the president burble and erupt with torrents of speechifying and righteous indignation, as if he is trying to excise this thing, cast it out and away with good and noble deeds. This is, frankly, a remarkable performance, keen and somehow perceptive about a long-dead man, and  thoroughly respectable in its unshowiness. It's graced with a sense of humility and reverence, but devoid of any sloppy, sappy hero worship.

The good and noble deed at the center of the film is the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, the monumental piece of legislation that definitively abolished American slavery and laid the sturdy groundwork for a century and a half of civil rights struggle. In depicting the fight to push the bill through the House, Spielberg and Kushner, using Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals as a primary source, have crafted a particularly elegant and mostly sharp civics lesson. To its credit, Kushner's script does not shy away from the dubiously ethical machinations employed by Lincoln's cabinet, including bribing lame duck congressmen with cushy appointments. Spielberg cast three game actors to play these operatives — John Hawkes, James Spader, and Tim Blake Nelson — and they provide most of the film's folksy, almost madcap humor. The rest of the levity is provided by Day-Lewis himself and by a bewigged Tommy Lee Jones, playing staunch abolitionist with a heart of gold Thaddeus Stevens. His is a crowd-pleaser of a role and performance, with plenty of stirring moments on the House floor to raise hairs, and a sweet if heavily speculative grace note of sentiment toward the film's end. Jones is in cruise control here, doing his usual arc of wrinkly stiffness giving way to gruff affection, but his default mode operates at a pretty high level as is, so he still does the film good service.

Lincoln is positively littered with familiar faces, notable standouts being Lee Pace as a young, preening and suitably odious pro-slavery Democrat (Fernando Wood, for you history folks) and David Strathairn as Lincoln's trusty right-hand man William Seward. The cast is universally strong, with some terrific actors (Elizabeth Marvel, Walton Goggins, Michael Stuhlbarg) taking small roles, likely eager for any opportunity to work on such a well-pedigreed product. The glittery roster pays off mostly, though like Cloud Atlas's makeup tricks a few weeks ago, at a certain point the constant roll-out of familiar faces becomes a kind of stunt-y joke. By the time Spader showed up with wild facial hair (which the movie is full of) and a swaggering paunch, the audience I was in was laughing with every new arrival. That's OK, this is not so self-serious a movie, but it eventually became an unfortunate, if unintentional, distraction.

Also not serving the movie well are the bits involving Lincoln's family, primarily a breathless and hectoring Sally Field as going-'round-the-bend Mary Todd and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's oldest (and only non-doomed, as it turned out) son Robert. Mary Todd is wracked with grief over Willie's death, to the detriment of their neglected young son Tad, and sees spooks and specters and portents of doom everywhere. Field has moments of clarity and poise in the film, but she also does a lot of blustery Tennessee Williams stuff that stands in disjointed contrast to Day-Lewis' measuredness. There is nothing particularly wrong with Gordon-Levitt's work in the film, it's just that his story seems a bit basic and tacked-on — Robert wants to join the army rather than be branded a coward for life, while his parents, understandably, want to keep him as far away from the war as possible. This creaky conflict doesn't take up too much space, but whenever it does pop up, and when we go dancing around with Mary Todd's madness, the film tends to lose its procedural momentum. For the most part Spielberg and Kushner have bravely decided to make this a movie about policy, but they do take some unwelcome wanders into biopic melodrama that the rest of the film feels too smart for.

As a piece of technical filmmaking, Spielberg has chosen to make Lincoln a straightforward, earnest affair, with minimal nods toward complex aesthetics coming mostly from his trusty cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Like any good DP, Kaminski is a deft manipulator of sunlight, here making it thin and pale and wintry (the film takes place from the winter of 1864 to the spring of 1865) but still insistent and urgent through all the cold and dark. It's too literal to be a metaphor, but it works wonders nonetheless, in one scene in particular. The amendment has just passed in the House (spoiler alert) and Lincoln stands by a window in the White House, holding his son and listening to the cheers and bells announcing the victory. A sheer curtain billows around man and boy and late winter sunlight envelops them. It's a lovely moment, still and quiet but vivid with life, and was the one true moment of the film that gave me the shiver of realizing Lincoln's actual humanity. Here was a man who did stand by windows in the White House, who spent sunny afternoons doing the nation's important work. The scene is emblematic of the admirable restraint that Spielberg demonstrates throughout this film; what could be a corny rah-rah affair only ever slightly veers into glossy, glazed-over territory. This is largely a solemn, humane, and sober picture he's made. I do wish he'd hired someone other than John Williams to write the score, though. It often overreaches or overstates, almost thwarting the desired effect of honest minimalism.

Similar to the music, there are places where Kushner's script, full of the Pulitzer-winner's usual biting intelligence and verbal flair, stumbles uncomfortably over bits of exposition, making the film feel like an artfully disguised history lecture. There's nothing wrong with history, in fact this film is a celebration of its nuances, of the occasional mundanity of big things, but we're too often left intellectually stirred but emotionally cold. We know great words are being said by great, if flawed, men, and we know the heavy meaning of what those words imply, but there's a certain soulfulness lacking. That's a tricky balance to strike, between fact and feeling, and I suppose the family bits were added to act as ballast for the film's practical policy talk, but I'd imagine that there is some root emotional oomph to be found in that policy that could bolster the story in its own right. As he's done in post-Angels in America plays like Homebody/Kabul, here Kushner has atomized his dual impulses: we have the electric joy of smart people talking smartly about important things, at times to a perhaps audience-overestimating degree, and then we have the more traditionally dramatic personal material. The twain don't meet often or organically enough, there's precious little in the middle-ground, and so it's hard to have as fully immersive an experience as one wants.

Still, I suspect that all parties involved are happy with the film they've made. It's a strong project, a fiercely intelligent and carefully crafted picture featuring perhaps the year's most beguiling performance. In the wake of (some of us) celebrating a president's reelection, awash as we've been in big language and sentiment, Lincoln comes as a firm reminder of an older day when American politics was, at times, a tool of actual concrete and fundamental change. That should not dim our joy or hope today, however. In fact, Lincoln seems to suggest that the Great Emancipator would have relished in these times. Though, he would still likely take a pause to tell a wise or witty story of how things used to be.

*****

Perhaps only one rung down from Lincoln on the hero worship ladder is everyone's favorite sleek British superspy, James Bond. Who, after many awkward years languishing as a campy relic, has been reinvented in the past decade as a debonair Jason Bourne. Beginning with 2006's Casino Royale, continuing with the dreary Quantum of Solace, and reaching its peak with the new film Skyfall, the Bond makeover has been intriguing to watch, to demarcate where certain Bondian conceits have been jettisoned or weeded out and where others have simply been modernized. Gone now are the Bond Girls' naughty names, the cat-stroking villains, the cartoonish henchmen. In their place are some sly, mocking, but not derisive, references to the Bond days of old and a newfound grit that smartly sheds at least a little light on what "license to kill" really implies. Meaning, these Bond films, especially Skyfall, contain some moral quandaries, which is newer and stranger territory for Mr. Bond than any of Blofeld's secret lairs.

Ridding itself of the grim and unexciting revenge plot of the previous two Bond 2.0 films, Skyfall picks up with a new story. A hard drive containing the names of all NATO agents currently undercover has been stolen and it's up to Bond (brooding ram god Daniel Craig) to stop the bad guys and get that damn thing back. Why such a list would even exist in the first place — isn't that making it awfully easy for the world's villains? — is never explained. The movie instead throws us immediately into the action, opening with a whiz-bang chase through Istanbul involving motorcycles on the roof of the Grand Bazaar and fisticuffs on top of a speeding train. But unlike earlier Bond films in which this all might play out in an uninterrupted stream of stuntery, here we cut back to rainy London, where Bond's boss M (Judi Dench) is tensely following the mission's progress. She's got another agent on the ground, Eve (Naomie Harris), and, at a crucial juncture, orders Eve to take a shot in the hopes of nailing the hard drive thief. She hits Bond instead and he goes sailing off a bridge toward, everyone believes, certain death. Cue snazzy title sequence and Adele's note-perfect theme song and we're off on a dark Bond adventure.

This hard drive, of course, is firmly a MacGuffin. It's merely the tool to launch us into a story about a madman (Javier Bardem) hell bent on getting revenge on MI6, and specifically M. The modern age is putting M's work in jeopardy — why all this old cloak and dagger stuff in a world of computers and drones? — and this villain's violent taunting is certainly not helping matters. So thank god Bond returns from the dead at just the right moment and is dispatched, injured and not quite up to snuff, to track the bad guy down. This is all done with a mood of polished British steeliness, ably embodied by Craig's laconic vigor and Dench's pointed, theatrical wit. These are good actors playing roles that were once sketches, and we're grateful to have them breathing real life into them. We're grateful too for Javier Bardem, who plays one of the most curious and surprising Bond villains in recent memory. Though his motivations for revenge and standard-issue Bond villain ailment/oddity are less than thrilling, and his techniques too-easy computer cliches, Bardem is so good at being a weirdo that all shortcomings are forgiven. There's one wonderfully dangerous scene of sexual ambiguity involving Bardem and Craig, one that doesn't exactly turn this nasty villain into the nasty gay villain, but does bawdily, but not insultingly, call that into question. While also, more excitingly, turning that same curious gaze at James himself. The scene is over quickly and the theme does not pop back up again, but it's flourishes and details like that that make Bardem's performance, and Skyfall as a whole, an unexpected pleasure to watch.

In his adventures, James travels from Turkey to Britain to Shanghai to Macau and back to Britain, always impeccably dressed (seriously, is there a better movie clothes-wearer than Daniel Craig?) and with that hard-nosed look of determination fixed on his face. This is intense Bond, angry Bond, personal Bond, but there is still something more bouncy or buoyant to Skyfall than there was in his previous two outings. The screenwriters — John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade — and director Sam Mendes have fashioned something that digs deeper into the Bond mythology than is normal, while also pushing out the borders to cover satisfying new territory. It's a joy to see Dench have so much to do in the film, and a clever twist involving Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes' characters near the end sets up sturdy new foundations for subsequent films. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace felt like someone was trying to close the lid on Bond, whereas Skyfall is simply pointing him in a new direction; it's a movie about a challenge to the old guard that, by picture's end, gleefully hands that old guard some new weapons. We've a new Q (darlingest darling of the fall movie season Ben Whishaw), a new headquarters, and a new(ish) gun. We've also got a reinvigorated Bond, one rededicated to the task of defending crown and country but not overly laden with personal business. It's a leaner Bond and a bit meaner than yesteryear where it counts, but with that old archness still firmly intact.

Skyfall is also lovely to behold. Mendes hired living legend Roger Deakins to do his photography, and it proves a wise decision in every meticulous frame. The shots are as tailored and bespoke as any of Bond's suits and show off an impressive array of palettes and textures. We've got the blue raininess of London, the seductive mystery of sky-high Shanghai, and the lacquered, glowing reds and yellows of a Macau casino. Each location features its own site-specific action sequence — a tense chase through the Underground, a stealthy assassination lit only by changing neon signs, a primal fist fight involving Komodo dragons — that shows off a different aspect of Bond's impressive new aesthetic universe. Mendes has always been great at crafting a pretty picture, but here he also explores his space, lets the action interact with it. Everything is crisply done, but it doesn't feel starchy or overly presentational.

Skyfall is not without its weak spots — Bardem's master plan is ultimately a bit blunt and unartful, the script is not terribly good to women (wish they'd get rid of that old Bond trope for good), Whishaw and Craig regrettably don't kiss — but, all cards on the table, it's still a knockabout success. If it doesn't feel like a classic Bond film, that's probably OK. They're starting a new thing here, and, three films into the project, they're finally, truly getting somewhere. After reminding us that the Bond films are now fifty years old, the closing credits are then quick to reassure us that Bond will return soon. Reverence to the past is given, but then it's back to aiming dead-on at the future.