Lincoln -- messy politics and moral ambiguity
To make sure we never forget the reality of the Civil War, the film opens with a battle scene, an ugly, bloody, grunting, hand-to-hand affair of desperate men struggling in mud while trying to bayonet each other to death. The role of black soldiers in the Union war effort is repeatedly emphasized. Black Americans were not mere passive beneficiaries of the abolitionists' work; these men, strongly motivated for obvious reasons, did much of the fighting that saved the country.
The movie actually covers just the last four months of Lincoln's life, and focuses on his effort to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery. Somewhat jarringly, the party labels attached to progressives and reactionaries at that time were the reverse of today -- Lincoln and the abolitionists were Republicans, while the conservatives and fervent opponents of black freedom were Democrats.
The risk of the perfect being the enemy of the good comes up again and again. During one raucous House debate, a conservative Congressman invokes the slippery slope -- if slavery is abolished, what else may follow? Votes for blacks? Intermarriage? One cannot avoid thinking of the slippery-slope arguments raised today by opponents of gay equality.
Lincoln himself is at times genuinely torn over the Confederate offer of a negotiated peace. End the war and its horrible slaughter now (at that point the Civil War had already cost more than 150 times as many American lives as the whole Iraq war), or press on for total victory and get the Amendment passed, at the cost of even more lives, but winning results that would at least make the sacrifice worthwhile?
The film's look draws us effortlessly into the world of 1865. Everything is brown and sepia and murky; cigars are smoked constantly and almost everyone over 30 looks unhealthy; the fussy over-complicated drab clothing and the variegated and spectacularly ugly beards evoke the dawn of the dreary Victorian age. You are there, you are in 1865.
The script is a triumph and will make you want to see the movie again just to make sure you didn't miss anything. So many movies these days spend millions on special effects, only to be sunk by weak writing; here, the spoken word gets its proper priority.
Performances are flawless across-the-board, and Day-Lewis is already considered a strong Oscar candidate. Lincoln apparently had a penchant for lengthy metaphors and anecdotes which sometimes baffled his listeners, and he could be quick to anger when provoked. You get the real Lincoln here, good and bad.
In our own time when politics is so clogged with absolutist and no-compromise attitudes, it's well worth being so effectively reminded that not all questions have easy answers, and that doing the right thing can sometimes be not only difficult but actually repugnant.