2013 Academy Awards

11.26.12

Obligatory "Lincoln" Post

So I finally saw Lincoln yesterday, and I found it pretty great. I hadn't read any reviews, so I had no idea what it was going to be about, except, you know, Abraham Lincoln, but what I mean is that I came in expecting something that was at least a semi-biopic and instead found something that took place in just one month of his life and really should not have been called Lincoln at all but something like Lame-Duck Session, but I suppose that wouldn't have tested very well.

Anyway, it was interesting politically, but the movie really got its momentum from the performances. Day-Lewis of course, but many others. Sally Field was just amazing. If Oscar should be calling anyone first, I think it's her. Kudos to Kushner on that front, because her character was extremely well written, too. I don't think I'd seen her in anything since Soap Dish. She was just phenomenal. Also Tommie Lee Jones and the awesome David Strathairn and James Spader, playing a character not unlike his oleaginous Office character, Robert California.

Even the minor actors were fantastic. This guy Jackie Earle Haley played the vice president of the CSA, Alexander Stephens, and he was just perfectly reprehensible. Watching him, almost half-man, half-snake, hiss out his imprecations against Lincoln and union and black people and rights, he looked and sounded exactly like some of these egregious hate-mongering nincompoops we have to deal with today, which I'm sure Spielberg intended. The pro-slavery people look so small. Some years from now, someone will make a movie about same-sex marriage, and today's bigots will look just as tiny.

Yes, it showed that Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens understood that you have to compromise your principles in order to advance them, and yes, that's a useful thing for people to see. But it's not a world historically profound political insight. For all these dimestore pundits trying to write about how Lincoln applies to today's situation, I think it really doesn't. That was a pretty unique situation in American history. Entitlements don't quite compare to war and slavery. (UPDATE below the fold!!)

UPDATE: I see that Greg Sargent posted something on Lincoln around exactly the same time I did, and he makes a very good point: Far from the lesson being about the nobility of compromise, as some pundits have suggested, the lesson instead is about when not to compromise. This is right and meshes completely with what I wrote above. Lincoln and Stevens moderated their rhetori (in Stevens's case) and their ethics (in Lincoln's), but not their ultimate aim and goal of ending slavery.

In other words, the compromises they made were with themselves over what they were willing to do to win, not over the ultimate poicy goal. It's so typical of today's Washington that this distinction would be lost.