Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the election almost upon us and the Obama drama Southside With You coming soon to theaters, we tweak an old Watch This topic and hail some of our favorite films about real U.S. Presidents.

Lincoln (2012)

One of the great fallacies in popular art is that “great” men and women make great subjects for cinema. While the idea of making a movie about a political leader or rock star or respected humanitarian seems like a winner, the actual films often have a hard time justifying their existence. They’re either grim slogs through the darkest details of a famous person’s biography (like I Saw The Light) or illustrated Wikipedia entries, hitting only the highlights (like The Iron Lady).

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When director Steven Spielberg announced that he’d be adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Abraham Lincoln biography, Team Of Rivals—with a script by Pulitzer-winning Angels In America playwright Tony Kushner and multiple Oscar honoree Daniel Day-Lewis as the lead—the project seemed likely to be just another bloated prestige picture, with maybe a few moments of grace and artistry between the speeches and sentimental music. Lincoln has some unnecessary concessions to Hollywood conventionality, including a few melodramatic confrontations within the Lincoln family. And the abrupt “let’s just jump ahead to the assassination” ending feels forced. But for most of its 150 minutes, Lincoln brings history to life in a way that these kinds of films rarely do.

Much of the credit for that belongs to Day-Lewis, who plays a remarkably layered Lincoln: steely when it comes to achieving his political goals, but also amiable in a way that explains how he inspired such devotion. Kushner’s script has Lincoln cracking jokes and telling stories to win over his opponents, but it also has him rising to anger and pursuing devious tactics when his enemies are standing in his way. Day-Lewis makes the man’s many sides all seem like part of one recognizably human individual. He’s neither a remote historical figure nor someone so flawed that it’s hard to understand how he ever achieved anything.

Beyond the conception and portrayal of its main character, Lincoln works so well because it’s uncommonly focused. Rather than breezing through its subject’s life (or skipping around in the timeline, as has become the modern fad for biopics), Lincoln mostly sticks with the administration’s all-out push to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the waning months of the Civil War. Spielberg and Kushner play up the similarities between the divided congress of 150 years ago and the Washington of today, depicting America as a country that has always argued and compromised its way through major challenges. In the process, Lincoln connects history to now, and illustrates one of the best ways to tell life stories on film: by showing people hard at work, doing what it was that made them worthy of a major motion picture.

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Availability: Lincoln is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.