When we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender. Anti-romanticism is all the more ideological because it pretends to have no ideology, to be the “plain truth” that demonstrates the falsity of romantic visions. And this movie is anti-romantic because, to be blunt, it is anti-revolutionary. In this movie, “things happen” through patience and compromise, not through steadfast idealistic struggle.
When Lincoln sets about abolishing slavery–out of the goodness of his heart, essentially–his first adversaries turn out to be the radical abolitionists, in whose number the movie is careful not to place the great emancipator. Before anything can happen, in other words, the first order of business is to steamroll men of principle like Thaddeus Stevens and James Ashley into doing what Lincoln wants them to do. Stevens is too wildly idealistic and unrealistic to be allowed to speak his mind; he isn’t quite a caricature—if only because Tommie Lee Jones brings too much gravitas to the part—but he’s the uncle everyone is embarrassed of, even if they love him too much to say so. He’s not a leader, he’s a liability, one whose shining heroic moment will be when he keeps silent about what he really believes. And James Ashley is portrayed as too cowardly and weak to even bring the amendment to a vote (while casting David Costabile for the part speaks volumes for what kind of a role they think it is). The two radical abolitionists in the film, in other words, cannot be trusted to take charge of a radical project like the abolition of slaves. A radical and revolutionary change must be placed in the hands of a compromising moderate.