The new film warrants the undulated praise critics are offering it–portraying the rumble of political glad-handing, parliamentary procedure used for a national good, and a political back rooms, cynicism, and deal-brokering to show how little has changed in Congress. It inspires by showing democratic flaws, in the way that a streak of grey or the remnants of a scar add a degree of authenticity. When they count the votes at the near ultimate scene, you’ll be writing them down too.
And the genius of “Lincoln,” finally, lies in its vision of politics as a noble, sometimes clumsy dialectic of the exalted and the mundane. Our habit of argument, someone said recently, is a mark of our liberty, and Mr. Kushner, whose love of passionate, exhaustive disputation is unmatched in the modern theater, fills nearly every scene with wonderful, maddening talk. Mr. Spielberg’s best art often emerges in passages of wordlessness, when the images speak for themselves, and the way he composes his pictures and cuts between them endow the speeches and debates with emotional force, and remind us of what is at stake.
David Brooks takes it a little further, and it sounds a lot like diplomacy:
It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.
The challenge of politics lies precisely in the marriage of high vision and low cunning. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gets this point. The hero has a high moral vision, but he also has the courage to take morally hazardous action in order to make that vision a reality.
To lead his country through a war, to finagle his ideas through Congress, Lincoln feels compelled to ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games, deceive his supporters and accept the fact that every time he addresses one problem he ends up creating others down the road.
Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good. This is a self-restrained movie that celebrates people who are prudent, self-disciplined, ambitious and tough enough to do that work.