If Only Obama's and Chris Christie's Critics Could Watch 'Lincoln'

Spielberg's depiction of rivals working together is all the more relevant after Hurricane Sandy.

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Disney / Reuters

The November 9th limited-release date for Steven Spielberg's long-gestating Abraham Lincoln biopic Lincoln was chosen, in significant part, because of the presidential campaign. "We all made the conscious decision to come out after the election for no other reason than Lincoln has his place," the director told the Associated Press. "Lincoln is relevant to all of us today, but he had his place and he had his time, and we wanted Lincoln to have his place and his time outside or just after the election cycle." Given a few recent events, that's turning out to be a regrettable choice. What neither Spielberg nor Obama nor Romney could've predicted is how much a certain "Superstorm" would drive Lincoln's central themes home.

When Lincoln is pressing his advisers to make the vote happen, he commands, "See what is before you. See the here and now. That's all that matters."

Spielberg's film, contrary to its title, is not an all-encompassing portrait of Lincoln's life. Screenwriter Tony Kushner (drawing from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals) focuses squarely on the final four months of the president's life, when he took advantage of (and quite possibly delayed) the end of the Civil War to pass the 13th Amendment. In order to do so, he and Secretary of State William Seward had to bring together several diametrically opposed factions—conservative and radical Republicans, moderates, and lame-duck Democrats—and get their votes.

It was a noble cause, but it was not always nobly achieved. Though the gang of political operatives Seward brings in to wrangle up the votes is explicitly instructed not to engage in monetary bribes, jobs are offered to the outgoing Dems. Outright lies are told to opposing forces. Politics are played, without apology. And, most importantly, compromises are made in order to get something vital accomplished. "We shall oppose each other in the course of time," Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) tells Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). "For now, we're working together."

That line rang particularly true at the movie theater in uptown Manhattan where Lincoln's media screening was held, relocated from its previous location across the street from the hanging crane famously made terrifying by Sandy. Of course, one of the top political stories of the last few days has been the warmth and cooperation between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Barack Obama—two men who have opposed each other vociferously and certainly will again. For now, they're working together, and it's the kind of thing that should be inspiring. However, because Christie has gone out of his way to publicly thank the president and applaud his hands-on assistance, he's been called a traitor by Romney supporters. Rush Limbaugh, with total lack of self-awareness, labeled Christie "fat and a fool." (He also said he is gay, because when you get right down to it, Limbaugh is a fifth-grade bully.)

Is there some sort of ulterior motive for Christie's embrace of the president? Certainly there are plenty of theories. But it's worth marveling that the partisan political climate in this country is such a nightmare that the actual sight of a Republican and Democrat working together on something is not just noteworthy, but newsworthy. Lincoln brings into sharp focus the simple fact that it shouldn't be.

Let's be clear: The film isn't a rosy picture of snuggly bipartisanship. The House floor debates in the film are rowdy, raucous affairs; these guys would've dissed Joe Wilson as a shrinking violet. David Straithairn's Seward dismisses the House (in what will surely prove one of the film's more crowd-pleasing lines) as a "gang of talentless hicks and hacks," and hires the crew of "skulky men" to wrangle up votes in order to "spare me the indignity of actually speaking to Democrats." When Mary Todd Lincoln encounters her nemesis Stevens in a White House receiving line, she sneers "We are all getting along, so they tell me," before giving him an earful that brings the event to a standstill. For his part, when Stevens and Lincoln sit down to strategize, he tells the president, "I lead. You oughta try it."

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Jason Bailey is the film editor at Flavorwire. He is the author of The Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion.

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