Lincoln: The Let the Right One In of Political Films

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Democracy, like vampirism, is a messy business. “Let the Right One In” may not seem to have much in common with Steven Spielberg’s return to greatness in “Lincoln” but that is only true if you let your ability to make unlikely connections remain as impotent Robert DeNiro at a Swedish bikini team pool party. “Lincoln” is to the American Political Film what “Let the Right One In” is to Vampire Movies.

The best example ever.

What makes “Lincoln” the greatest movie about the American political system—whether you want to refer to that system as a democracy or republic—is that is reveals the unpleasant truth of the ugliness at the heart of the concept before ultimately revealing that our system is actually something quite beautiful. Admittedly, “Let the Right One In” reveals a beauty involving a kind of love that is arguably rather hollow at the core, but when pressed, one can look around us here today and be forced to admit that the beauty of democracy that is achieved by showing its ugliness may be a bit hollow as well.

Thank God that Steven Spielberg did not give us a biographical greatest hits biopic of Mr. Lincoln. What makes “Lincoln” aptly titled only in retrospect is the manner in which we actually are presented with a story that most of us never seen or even heard of about the most mythically familiar of all Americans. Be honest: would you rather have a series of loosely connected scenes providing little additional insight into historical events we all know by heart?

Or would you rather have the genuinely extraordinary achievement of a film that shows just how dirty and dingy the cost of preserving democracy can be without—and here is the really amazing part—indulging in cynicism? Spielberg’s greatest achievement in “Lincoln,” and let there be no doubt that it is a film of multiple achievements, is that he has made a film out of events tailor made for a work of profound cynicism, yet instead manages to create a film so uplifting in its portrait of the majesty of democracy that you almost feel capable of floating out the theater.

Mrs. Lincoln’s mental disturbances. Radical elements to the left and right inside his own political party. The conflicting interests of lame duck members of the opposition party and those who were re-elected to the House. The brittle coalition of the team of rivals that made up his own Cabinet. The traitors in the Confederacy actually believing they could still hang onto slavery. The overwhelming grief of losing young son while occupying the Oval Office. All these elements and more combine to create a situation in which something as remarkable as introducing and passing a brand new amendment to the Constitution that is going to lay waste to a way of life enjoyed by half the country seems like more than a dream or a miracle.

Of course, that perspective may have a lot to do with the fact that our leaders today can’t even pass a bill that keeps the entire economy from collapsing in on itself. Yes, truly, democracy is a messy business. We don’t need “Lincoln” to remind us of that fact, but Steven Spielberg’s film sure does come in handy for reminding us that the ugliness can—when you have a person with vision involved in the process—ultimately result in something incomprehensibly beautiful.