Critiquing the critics is an unlovely habit, but sometimes it makes itself necessary. To wit: the accuracy with which Selma depicts the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson is entirely besides the point. The film is taking historical figures, and a historical situation, and dramatising them for the purpose of making certain points. It's got the whole bit in the credits and all. For the needs of the story Selma wants to tell about how the gory work of politics is done, Johnson needs to act in certain ways, and not act in others. Complain about that, and you might as well complain that Amadeus repeats the apocryphal "too many notes" story about poor besmirched Emperor Joseph II. And it makes Joseph talk in English, on top of it! I mean, we all want to see LBJ get his proper due in the grand scope of history,* but regarding this particular movie, that's not a hill worth dying on. It's not a hill worth climbing up in the first place.

Anyway, Selma is two things that are valuable enough to make all of this completely besides the point. One, it is an important document, a story told by an African-American director who helped write the script (credited solely to a white man) about a key moment in the history of civil rights, told from a virtually exclusive African-American perspective, and coming out in a serendipitous moment to draw sharp attention to how broken race relations persist in being in America, 50 years after the events depicted. Two, and this is not actually related at all to one, though it would be nice to think that it should be, it's a really damn good movie. It could be about the purple slugulons of Norvax VI asserting their right to be heard in the government of the Wodljab Blogules, and as long as director Ava DuVernay built it the same way with the same her top-notch crew, but especially cinematographer Bradford Young and editor Spencer Averick, it would be every bit as gripping a work of narrative cinema. Though I suspect in such case, it wouldn't have come as such a surprise for it to underperform in getting Oscar nominations.

The point remains, though, that Selma is not about slugulons, but about actual human beings who lived and suffered and fought recently enough that some of the "characters" are still alive and, in one case, serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. With that in mind, it's not merely a tightly-constructed study of men's behavior in a high-stakes political environment, but a potent and enormously necessary dissection of How We Got To Where We Are, and a ashen-faced reminder of How Far We Have Yet To Go. Those aren't capital letters that Selma insists on; one of the very best things about it, especially in comparison to most other biopics with serious awards recognition on their minds, is that it's surprisingly free of taking the historical longview. These characters are literally grappling with the future of America, and yet Selma only cares about the boots-on-the-ground reality of being an activist trying to figure out the right combination of strategies to break the intransigence of the system.

Focusing on Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), it's a Great Man story about one of the handful of actual, no-doubt-about-it Great Men of the 20th Century, and it's content to portray him as an beleaguered unwilling politician forced into bullshit chess games with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and even the members of his own inner circle. It's a perfect century-later companion piece to Lincoln, which similarly presented a mythic American as a political calculator rather than a plaster saint. Oyelowo's King is thoughtful and cunning; when he orates (in all-new speeches, owing to rights issues; this film has not been sanctioned by the King estate, which is enough to let us know that it's worth something), we can see how it's as much a performance for him to give the appearance of transporting passion as much as it is legitimate, because transporting passion is what the moment requires. When he locks horns with Johnson, it's not ideology, but cold, brutal gamesmanship that we see at play. And this, the film confidently and persuasively argues, is how the world is changed.

The film's evocation of 1964 and 1965 in Alabama, to give context and weight to the political wrangling of the narrative, is terrific: Young's hazy, yellowing cinematography marries perfectly to the period trappings of the production design to suggest not just a place that is stuck within our own past, but is, itself, a relic of a bygone age. And his extensive use of solitary key lights in unexpected placed - this is a vigorously backlit movie - lends the film a sense of grandeur and mythic weight that doesn't ever contradict or detract from the essential realism of the piece. It's yet another piece of evidence in the mounting argument that Young is the most interesting American cinematographer of his generation, and if all in all, I think his work on A Most Violent Year is slightly more interesting, the point remains: 2014 was an awfully good year for the man.

While all this dusty, ragged visual scene-setting is going on, DuVernay and Averick piece the film together to run like a racehorse: for a film set in the most depressing possible milieu outside of Europe in the 1940s, and with such an emphasis on scenes of people discussing strategy, Selma moves. One of the earliest sequences, the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that set the rest of the action in motion, is flawlessly pieced together to hit with an almost literally sickening force that stresses the wantonness and brutality of the event more than anything else ever could; it's practically a real-life horror film hiding inside a prestige drama. Later on, the numerous dialogue scenes are given jagged, unpredictable energy by the constant shifting of perspective and the choice to visually emphasise certain characters in unusual, combinations that fill everything with tension; the same trick is used to vastly different effect to make the film, emphatically, about group action and the will of a mass of people, by stitching together crowd scenes in fluid, organic ways.

So much goes so unbearably well in Selma, which effortlessly builds up a righteous head of steam while simultaneously breaking our hearts at every chance, that's able to survive what otherwise might be some film-killing missteps. Some of these, the film ends up redeeming: the choice to use onscreen typewriter-style text, mimic the FBI's surveillance of King and his inner circle, is ludicrously hokey the first time it shows up, but as it becomes part of the fabric of the film, it feels more and more right, implying just how obtrusive and constant that surveillance was in the characters' real lives.

But some things just don't work. DuVernay has an unfortunate addiction to using slow motion to emphasise violent moments within the story, and it's the wrong kind of tonal variance with the rest of the movie, suggesting a filmmaker who doesn't trust us to get it, when it is incredibly overt. Similarly, Jason Moran's score is simply pandering: not so shticky and sentimental that it turns things cloying, but it's definitely instructing us what to feel in a totally unwelcome way. These are small issues. The big issue, that all the triumphs in the world can't hide, is that Selma has something of a rocky screenplay (credited to Paul Webb alone, but DuVernay is known to have pitched in). Structurally, it's perfectly fine, condensing several months into a steady flow of rising frustration and anguish. But there's some dreadful dialogue that hits all the flattest notes a biopic can hit. There's not a single line that King's longsuffering wife Coretta Scott King ever speaks that feels natural, leaving Carmen Ejogo lost in a cardboard character, spouting platitudes and playing at the laziest clichรฉs of supportive wifedom. And for all the ire raised by the Johnson scenes, the real problem with them is that they're ugly exposition boxes, in which Wilkinson (who resembles Johnson in no meaningful respect, visually or aurally) gamely tries to land the worst kind of "You and I both know all about this, so let's reiterate in detail" dialogue, when he's not awkwardly identifying people by their full names to make sure we recognise them. Comparatively, the rest of the script is smooth sailing, though especially in the first hour, there's not five consecutive minutes where the movie doesn't bottom out for a few minutes on the most inelegant turns of phrase that writerly desperation could concoct.

That's a manageable flaw, in the grand scheme of Selma. What lingers aren't the akward Johnson scenes, but the far more frequent moments of torment, resolve, and fatigue playing out on Oyelowo's face; the perfectly-crafted horror of the film's showpiece moments of police brutality; the striking sense of genuine community engendered by the outstanding ensemble cast, rare enough in any film and virtually unknown in movies anchored by such an iconic historical figure as King. It's by no means a perfect film, and I suspect that DuVernay hasn't finished learning all the tools she needs to become a top-tier filmmaking talent (though between this and her previous feature, Middle of Nowhere, it's pretty clearly the case that she's going to arrive there eventually). What it is, though, is a film that we badly needed right now, a blast of piercing social insight expressed through exquisite craftsmanship that makes it feel like art and not bald-faced messaging. It is, above all else, a film that matters, and those do not come around very often at all.