Pity Tony Kushner.
How does a screenwriter tell a tale of Lincoln's life while escaping the gravitational tug of hagiography?
That was Kushner's brief in writing the script for Spielberg's Lincoln. And he succeeded. Sorta.
The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Abraham Lincoln. Her book focused on Lincoln's political skills with his cabinet during the four years of his presidency.
But even that palette was too broad for a film. 900 pages too much.
After a few false starts, Kushner tells us who Lincoln is through the two months the House of Representatives debated the enactment of the political cornerstone of the Lincoln administration -- the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery throughout the United States.
It turns out to be a brilliant choice. We get to see Lincoln as a great strategist -- a man willing to compromise (and perhaps commit political bribery) for a moral end. As a raconteur who could turn conflict into agreement with a folk story. And yet a father and husband who cared deeply for his family.
Americans are now commemorating the 150th anniversary of its civil war. A period of history that has been encased in national amber. But, when it was happening, there was no guarantee how the war would win or when.
The script bravely lets Lincoln explain why the Thirteenth Amendment was necessary. Why the Emancipation Proclamation may not have withstood legal scrutiny.
And even though Lincoln wanted to see the end of slavery, he was not above using the debate as a means to bring an early end to the Civil War (a tactic that failed) or to mislead the Democrat opponents of the amendment (with a lawyerly response concerning the prospects of peace without passing the amendment).
What the script brings us is politics in its barest forms. Where Radical Republicans set aside their goal of full equality for legal equality. Where conservative Republicans pass up peace possibilities to favor abolition. Where Democrats use every tactic available to defame the president.
Even though all of that sounds anachronistic enough to be out of this morning's newspaper, it does only because the current American political gridlock is merely an echo of earlier periods of political dispute.
The film compresses events and gives lines to characters who never spoke them. But the film is as accurate as any of Shakespeare's historical plays. Fiction always serves current political agendas to some degree.
The greatest kudo for the film is that it does not flinch from Lincoln's concern about whether the two races could live side by side in peace. He had doubts. Stemming partly from his belief that the white race was superior to the black. But he was willing to take the risk.
After putting Lincoln into a very realistic environment, his death unravels the mood. As he lies on his deathbed in the Peterson House, he looks as if he has just been taken off the cross. Dying for our national sin of slavery.
Even with that martyr ending, the film is well worth seeing.
Perhaps seeing more than once -- with its complex storyline and beautiful cinematography.