True North, Euclid, the White House Family and Lincoln, the Movie Star

Ideas and Issues National Politics
movie poster for "Lincoln"

New Orleans   Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, is getting a lot of reviews these days in the political commentary and op-ed pages, rather than in the Arts sections for its message to Americans about politics.  We signed up, sat day, and saw the flick last night in the suburbs where it was showing.

On the plus side the acting was actually amazing.  Daniel Day-Lewis simply inhabits the role, as if not acting at all, as if in fact he was Lincoln not in the way I might have imagined, but simply in the way he must have actually been, as impossible as that seems 150 years later.  Some of the other players like Sally Fields, Tommy Lee Jones, and David Strathairn (in a career best performance) were excellent.  On the down side the dialogue was endless and sometimes wearing.  Given the packed-in historical details and the endless drama and action of war, it was surprising that more of the points couldn’t be made visually, particularly outside of the Congressional debates, but this may be part of the transition from playwright to screenwriter for Tony Kushner, but what do I know.

I do know that the messages we are supposed to be getting from this film from the editorial pages are compromise, compromise, and compromise some more with a side dish of “the ends justify the means.”  On the upside the message is that politics is a messy but honorable pursuit and that despite the brickbats that go with it, “public life” as President Obama calls it, is worth every minute of the effort, no matter how strenuous.

And for all of Kushner’s unending dialogue and speechmaking, he does leave us with some indelible metaphors for politics and the organizing involved, and for me and mine that made it worth the price of admission.  Most of them were from Lincoln’s voice, who is presented in this movie as an inveterate storyteller, so much so that it sends some of his top aides occasionally running from the room in frustration, as we are tempted to do ourselves at some points as well.

One great metaphor was the difference between finding “true north” on a surveyor’s compass and actually building a road to get there around mountains and swamps, which can be anything but a straight line route.  And, so also therefore politics, which is a less banal metaphor that the old line about sausage and democracy, get it?   Another, though much more contrived in the movie, therefore it seemed to ring one of the falsest notes, despite its aptness as a metaphor for equity brought forward from Euclid’s principal of the equality of all sides of an equilateral triangle, always insisting that each piece be equal no matter what along with their angles.  Of course he also avoids Euclid’s principle of an isosceles triangle where only two sides would be equal, but whatever, it worked in the movie, if you made it through the story without running.

My favorite story may have been one that the character tells in sort of a “round by Susie’s house” shaggy dog fashion about a woman he represented once as a country lawyer who might arguably have killed her husband justifiably, though he sort of swallows the punch lines badly.  The point of the story is one that is not heard as often as needed in these polarizing times, but is the heart of the humane part of life that takes so many years to learn:  justice must be tempered with mercy, the grey eventually takes up more and more space in the middle where once white and black lived alone.

So the movie’s message for these times is impossible to miss, as it is in any Spielberg cartoon fantasy of which this is also a piece.  In our time of political gridlock, Tea Parties, and whackos, watching the two sides of the deeply partisan House debate on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which, once ratified, would permanently abolish slavery during the Civil War, it is easy to conclude that, if anything, the divisions were wider between the party and the players then than they are now.   Therefore the movie’s moral is clear in this regard by saying that politics is about compromise and the most successful politicians are those that know how and when to practice the art, whether moving the levers smoothly and silently or grinding the gears in any way necessary to get it done.

What is unsatisfying about the movie is not the moral, because who really cares since this is a movie after all rather than real life, but the feeling that the fights now are less about high purpose and clear vision as politics has devolved to transactions rather than transformations.  We are not about ending poverty for example, but trying to increase some health coverage on the margins.  We are not about ending war and fining peace as much as pulling back or navigating to something like stability, which is far different than peace and more valuable in the eye of the beholder than the perspective of principal.   Ending slavery finally, even if unsatisfactorily to the slaves and postponing real justice for more than 100 years, is a tough compromise, but at least of transcendent importance, as was ending the civil war and restoring the union, which rightly places a premium value on good tactics that achieve noble strategies.  We still should be able to ask that leaders at the highest levels of public life set and insist that the bar be raised high and then do everything possible to meet the mark.  That moral seemed missing from Lincoln, the movie, just as it seems missing too often today from America, the country.