The opening scene of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln depicts a Civil War battle scene: scrappy, muddy, bayonet-to-bayonet fighting, a brutal slog over contested terrain. The rest of the film concerns something equally scrappy, muddy and messy: politics, specifically, the hard-fought battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States.
Based in part on the book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Goodwin, Lincoln is less a traditional biopic of our sixteenth president than a snapshot of one specific episode in his story—his last few months of life, at the start of his second term as U.S. president and in the final days of the Civil War. As the film begins, Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated role) is visiting Union troops and hears a handful of soldiers recite excerpts of what had already become an iconic presidential oration: the Gettysburg Address. The president—haggard, war-weary, solemn—listens intently as a black soldier recites the speech's final line as he marches back to join his regiment: "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom …"
This preface appropriately sets up the film's main conflict: Lincoln's efforts to make good on that "new birth of freedom" by convincing enough congressmen in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln's conviction on the matter is evident from the start: he believes abolishing slavery is a necessary step to move the country forward in unity. But politics being the complicated game that it is, conviction alone won't accomplish the goal. A good leader also needs skill in forging alliances, making deals, and charismatically bargaining with the other side to give and take for the common good. In other words: political skill. And Lincoln had it in spades.
One of the fascinating strengths of Lincoln is the way that it turns the nitty-gritty, inelegant work of politics into utterly compelling, even inspiring, drama. At a time when Americans are more cynical than ever about Congress and the partisan politics of no-compromise belligerence that threaten to pilot the nation over ominous "cliffs," a film like Lincoln is helpful. It reminds us that amazing things can emerge from democracy even in the most divided of times. The country was extremely divided in 1865, and the tone in Washington wasn't exactly civil (back then, politicians hurled insults like "you fatuous nincompoop!" at each other during House debates). And yet, with the guidance of Lincoln and the shrewd political maneuvering of his cabinet, enough votes were secured to get the amendment passed. Spielberg's film is a captivating document of history, yes; but it's also a reminder that working across party lines is not weak capitulation. On the contrary, it can birth revolutionary, healing change.