The movie itself mirrors its theme of compromise. Spielberg’s filmmaking and the script’s drama are conventional to a fault. Music swells perceptibly at all the right moments, sequences transition through traditional crossfades, and there’s even a chase scene at a climactic point. What we get through Day-Lewis’ intimate performance feels like a real, live human in a very well-made movie.
Still, compromise should be unsettling. This smart, endearing, successful Lincoln almost absolves us of our responsibility to wrestle with the ethical and practical implications of his story. But his physical intimacy and rhetorical complexity do not allow us to experience Lincoln as pure, solid greatness, nor to divorce ourselves from recognizing our own remaining political failures in humaneness and justice, even while the surrounding film aesthetics do feel like a marble memorial.
And so, awkward but hopeful questions of progress through compromise linger. “I can’t be you,” Robert Lincoln tells his father, “But I won’t be nothing.”
Rini Cobbey is an associate professor and chairwoman of communication arts at Gordon College in Wenham. She lives in Lynn.