The film Lincoln, by Steven Spielberg, is without doubt one of the most solemn, grave, and lofty American films ever made - and will, in time, be seen, I think, as one of the greatest American movies, a true gift to its culture. To comprehend the value and intelligence of this film, and its moral heft, it needs to be compared to two films which in different ways shadow it - The Godfather, and Downfall. For, if, in The Godfather, we see the utter corruption of the human family, and power used for evil, and, if, in Downfall, we see an embattled wicked leader in the last days of his life conspiring to utterly destroy the world - in Lincoln we see, as perhaps never before so clearly in an historically accurate picture - what a good man, cloaked in immense power, can do, to achieve the highest ideals of human life - that is, equality and freedom for all. These are not just American ideals, but Greek ones from ancient times - and there is a good case for saying that Lincoln is of the pinnacle of human nature in our history so far, since the time of Socrates, and Christ. He is, surely, the finest American leader, and a moral giant, easily the equal of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Mandela. The film is a brilliant juxtaposition of Abe the corny tale-spinner, man, the tired dad, the weary husband, the crafty politico - and Lincoln, the genius of spiritual grace.
And, in certain key moments, as perhaps only in very few lives, we sense, uncannily, that presence of almost religious perfection, within human limits. There is no doubt the film is a hagiographical exercise. But it is so drenched in cunning and blood and compromise, it forces us to confront a shocking truth: Lincoln was a giant among us despite being human and corruptible; even as a mortal, who could be shot down, and who sinned - he was great. The greatness lies in something so moving it is almost unbearable - he chose to pursue an unpopular, untimely vision of emancipation for slaves at a time when there was no political reason or will for it. Unlike the other side of power, where it corrupts, power, for Lincoln, allowed him to meet his better angels, and fulfil a Christlike vision, for the good of all men and women, everywhere. I wept in the film - I have never seen a performance like Daniel Day-Lewis' - he was the man, and he made me grieve his death, and rejoice in the miracle of his life. Not merely an Oscar winner, or Spielberg's greatest film, this is a testament to the goodness within the human, steeped as it is in warlike brutality, rhetorical afflatus, and contemptible vices. Finally, the symbol of the bed - where husbands and wives meet and share dreams and loss, and joy - and the bed where the great man died - shows us that Lincoln is the bedrock for American hope now.
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