Lincoln, Obama and a House divided

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's Lincoln is a political junkie's dream, a film that geeks out on the details of the behind-the-scenes dealmaking that constitutes the American political process. In telling the story of the titular figure's valiant effort to push forward the 13th Amendment to the constitution a piece of legislation that would outlaw chattel slavery through a reluctant Congress in the waning years of the Civil War, director Spielberg and screenwriter Kushner aim to show just how much compromise is necessary to achieve historical change at least at the highest levels of elected office.

Despite a modest amount of Spielbergian hokum, such as the opening scene in which black soldiers recite part of the Gettysburg address, a good portion of the film is riveting political theatre. While the filmmakers take us into the private lives of Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and firebrand abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), this is very much a film conducted in public or public-private places, ranging from the Congressional floor to backrooms where the legalised bribery that allows the system to function takes place. It is to Spielberg's credit that all this is strangely exciting; leave it to the veteran director to make a House of Representatives roll call into a riveting set piece.

Spielberg and Kushner's attitude toward the American political process is basically of a flawed but effective system, in which gifting a sought-after appointment to a wavering congressman or making a partial public denunciation of one's values is a small price to pay for progress. And in the case of the 13th Amendment, who could doubt it? From the vantage point of 2013, only the most hardened racist could possibly conclude that the achievement of this momentous piece of legislation wasn't worth some long forgotten, and ultimately minor, chicanery. With nearly 150 years worth of retrospection, it is all too easy to conclude that Lincoln was on the right side of history.

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