My own issues with Zero Dark Thirty (a slack second hour, a two-dimensional heroine) have nothing to do with its opaque position (if any) on the usefulness (or not) of torture in pursuing leads to bin Laden. Where the film really stands on that point may never be conclusively adjudicated. But its success does resolve the far more serious question of where most Americans stand on torture four years after George W. Bush disappeared into the witness-protection program: They don’t mind it. The anguish Zero Dark Thirty has aroused on op-ed pages simply has not spread to the broader public. Moviegoers cheer bin Laden’s death (who wouldn’t?) without asking too many questions about how we got there. This is hardly the movie’s fault. The public reaction to Zero Dark Thirty is consistent with the quiet acquiescence of most Americans, Democrats included, to the Obama administration’s embrace of drone warfare (civilian casualties notwithstanding) and domestic surveillance. John Brennan—the chief of staff to Bush’s Central Intelligence director, George Tenet, in the era of torture dramatized in Zero Dark Thirty—is the president’s nominee to be the next CIA director. Glenn Greenwald, a tireless critic of both Bush and Obama on post-9/11 security abuses, may be overstating the case but is more right than wrong when he writes that Zero Dark Thirty is not “being so well-received despite its glorification of American torture” but “because of this.” The movie’s popularity offers confirmation, if any is needed, that, for the first time since the Vietnam War, it’s a Democratic president who is presiding over—and countenancing—a national shift to the right on national security.
The rousing reception that has greeted Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in Establishment Washington—an enclave not generally known for its cinema connoisseurship—tells another story, about the state of play of domestic politics in the Obama years. Tony Kushner’s screenplay and Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance depict a president who, during the movie’s monthlong time frame of January 1865, is unyielding in his zeal to win ratification of the constitutional amendment outlawing slavery. Yet the Washington punditocracy’s praise distorts Lincoln, selling short the movie and its hero to draw another moral entirely: The only way good can happen in the nation’s capital is if you strike a bipartisan compromise. This supercilious veneration of bipartisanship is the Beltway Kool-Aid that Obama drank during his first term, much to his own grief, given that the Party of No was abstaining from it altogether. Those in Washington who are now repackaging it under the brand of Lincoln are the same claque that tirelessly preaches that the after-hours nightcaps shared by Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, or commissions like Simpson-Bowles, are the paradigms for getting things done.
The Beltway cheerleading for Lincoln as a parable of bipartisanship makes much of the fact that Obama screened it at the White House for a small invited group of congressional leaders. That one screening wasn’t enough for Ruth Marcus, a columnist at the Washington Post, who urged the president to have screenings “again and again” and “invite every member of Congress.” Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter who also columnizes for the Post, concurred: “The union will be well-served today by herding all 535 of its legislators into a darkened theater for a screening of Lincoln.” Why? It will give them “a greater appreciation for flexibility and compromise.” Such is the boilerplate of every talking head who has endorsed Lincoln. The film demonstrates “the nobility of politics” (in David Brooks’s phrase) by depicting a president who would strike any bargain he could, however ugly, to snare the votes he needed to free the slaves. Lincoln’s political dealmaking with a deadlocked, lame-duck House just after his reelection is, ipso facto, the Ur-text of Obama’s push to make a deal with Congress in the postelection “fiscal cliff” standoff of 2012.
Leaving aside the moral obtuseness of equating the imperative of abolishing slavery in the nineteenth century with reducing budget deficits in our own, there are other fallacies in this supposed historical parallel. If any of today’s apostles of bipartisan compromise had bothered to read the five pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals that are the springboard for Kushner’s screenplay, they would have learned that Lincoln not for one second compromised his stand on the abolition of slavery while rounding up congressional votes for the Thirteenth Amendment. (He doesn’t in the film either.) Lincoln’s compromises were not of principle but of process. He secured votes with the mercenary favors catalogued by Goodwin—“plum assignments, pardons, campaign contributions, and government jobs for relatives and friends of faithful members.” Few, if any, of these bargaining chips are available to Obama or any modern president who doesn’t want to risk impeachment. If the present-day Democrats tried to buy a Republican vote by trading it for a sinecure like a local postmastership—as Lincoln’s Republican White House does with a freshman Democrat from Ohio in Lincoln—Darrell Issa would be holding investigative hearings for the rest of Obama’s time in office. The one significant ideological compromise in the movie is that made by the Radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who tables his insistence on full equality for African-Americans to hasten the slavery-ending amendment’s passage.