Lincoln: Spielbergo's redemption

I've long regarded Steven Spielberg as the Leni Riefenstahl of democratic capitalism: a brilliant film maker who, handicapped by an ideological predisposition, prefers manipulation to revelation.

This thought came to me most vividly in a scene in the mediocre Saving Private Ryan (a brilliant landing montage succeeded by an overproduced WWII B picture that takes itself so seriously it drowns before reaching the beach). A message is on the way to the Ryan mother to tell her her sons are dead. The camera pans across the inside of the mother's rural farmhouse, as gauzily lit as a 70s Penthouse spread, silver-framed photographs on the bureau, wide fields outside...then a gleaming sedan pulls drives across the field, as if Christina from Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World had finally gotten herself some wheels. It's more Saving Private Lauren ("But Ralph still alive? He was the only one of the boys who truly appreciated my style").

In that movie Spielberg was so unsure of himself that a letter Lincoln wrote to a mother who lost her sons during the Civil War gets read not once, but twice (though read the Wikipedia entry: the internet gives us our illusions, and then, if we pay attention, takes them away).

Dammit, Spielbergo, I want people to cry when I die

So Spielberg finally did the sensible thing and turned to Lincoln himself. My daughter Faith and I saw the movie on Monday. Aside from a few Spielbergian bits of overreach (I didn't need that first scene, with its recitals of the Gettysburg Address), it is amazing. Everyone's at the top of their game, no one more than Daniel Day-Lewis (who was always my choice to play Maturin in any Patrick O'Brian-based movie) as Lincoln. He gets the reedy, rural tone just right. Future actors, playing Lincoln, will find themselves playing Day-Lewis.

The movie shows the arm-twisting, party discipline, deal-making, and genuine principle that are all part of any great legislative enactment, even the 13th Amendment. It's not all noble speechmaking. It's funnest visit to the legislative sausage factory you're ever likely to have.

Vampires may be a metaphor for slavery, but slavery needs no metaphor to be a horror. Can one be a genuine American and not revere Lincoln? I try to be generous, but most of the time, I believe that to be impossible. Those who disdain Lincoln have something damaged deep in their souls. Lincoln would have deeply believed that they could be healed, and brought home. I am no Lincoln, and doubt it very much.

See it. I have forgiven Spielberg everything. Well, he could have muted John Williams and stopped zooming slowly in on people while they talked in case we missed the significance of what they were saying ("listen, you idiot, this is important"), but these characteristic flaws are a small price to pay for the existence of this movie.