It is Steven Spielberg’s singular achievement to have made a heroic movie about compromise and petty corruption. In “Lincoln,” he pans away from a field of corpses in Petersburg, 130 miles down the road from Washington, and puts a tight frame on the Cabinet meetings, legislative debates and backroom confrontations where the final, decisive battles of the Civil War were fought. Combat determined the outcome of the War Between the States. Politics determined its meaning, culminating in passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Spielberg focuses on the peculiar process that brought down the peculiar institution. It is an epic staged in cramped, Victorian rooms.
Better than any other, the movie captures President Lincoln’s awkward, shuffling, distinctly democratic greatness. The low in him that caused sophisticates to sneer. The high in him shaped by Shakespeare and Euclid. The humanity, frailty and aching introspection. The shrewdness, decisiveness and ferocious will. It is the democratic faith that exceptional leaders can be found among common folk. But it is still shocking that such a leader should be Thomas Lincoln’s son. It seemed to have shocked Abe Lincoln himself, who as a youth fancied himself the offspring of a noble Virginia ancestor. Even at an early age, says historian David Herbert Donald, Lincoln carried “the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.”
While Lincoln is the center of the movie, its subject is politics — the race to pass a constitutional ban on slavery before the readmission of Southern states that would have doomed the effort. Lincoln’s critics sometimes accuse him of indifference to the law and the Constitution. In fact, he was a legalist to the core. He had defended the Constitution against radical abolitionists who found it fatally flawed for its accommodation of slavery. (William Lloyd Garrison called it a “covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.”) As the Civil War came to a close, Lincoln knew that a wartime measure such as the Emancipation Proclamation could easily be undone if it was not reflected in the text of the Constitution.
However venerable that document, the process it produces is not always attractive. To pass his amendment, Lincoln plunged into a vote-gathering effort that stopped just short of bribery. When moral appeals failed, patronage positions were offered. In this way, Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is the opposite of a Frank Capra movie in which a lonely moral hero defies a corrupt political establishment. Politics, in “Lincoln,” is a mix of human motivations, noble and base. There are rigid moralists and cowards and trimmers and job-seekers and fence-sitters. All, in the end, play their role. With the right leadership, the sum of politics becomes larger, much larger, than the flaws of its participants.
This is consistent with the realism of the Constitution’s framers, who assumed the general pursuit of self-interest and attempted to channel it toward public purposes. But the channeling is helped by good leaders.
Two moral leaders in “Lincoln” vie for our sympathy: the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Lincoln himself. It is a measure of the film’s ambition and complexity that the purer, more satisfying moral position — Stevens’s admirable (and personal) embrace of social equality between black and white — would have led to the 13th Amendment’s defeat. Stevens ensures passage by publicly tempering his deepest convictions — ultimately a disturbing cinematic moment. But by dividing our moral sympathies from our pragmatic judgments, Spielberg conveys something of Lincoln’s burden. While justice is not defined by the majority, it can’t be pursued without support from the majority. So Lincoln tacks back and forth, willing to compromise on almost everything — except his destination. When asked by members of his Cabinet to abandon that, his response is a sudden, savage whirlwind of certainty. For Lincoln, all politics is barter — but done in service to a purpose beyond barter.
The union would be well served today by herding all 535 of its legislators into a darkened theater for a screening of “Lincoln.” The issues they face — from public debt to immigration — are less momentous than slavery but momentous enough for discomfort. They might take away a greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise. They should also note that the dramatic culmination of the movie is a roll call — a list of forgotten legislators whose hesitant, conflicted choices were as important as the outcome of battle. Their shared profession may lack in dignity but not in consequence.