Black soldiers' recitation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to his face and Lincoln and his wife’s (Sally Field) reiteration of their son’s death and her near insanity—however necessary these are to provide us with information we need to evaluate the president and his situation. Tony Kushner, our best epic and political playwright, however, has done a remarkable job in creating a literate and basically focused script that, in turn, has encouraged the director to tamp down his often unbridled sentiments—which have tended to turn most of his works into behemoth pop cultural icons—and fully reveal his considerable filmmaking talents.
Even the most morally outspoken center of the work, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), an absolute abolitionist, whom we discover near the end of the film, sleeps with his Black housekeeper, describes Lincoln as a “dawdler” and fears Lincoln will “turn his back on emancipation.” Lincoln and his Republican supporters must draw in Stevens' “compass point” morality (as Lincoln explains, the compass always points due north but it does not tell you what chasms, swamps and other natural phenomena lie between), demanding that he argue that the amendment does not assure Blacks equality in social and voting rights, but simply assures equality before the law. The painful scene in which Stevens backs away from his belief in universal equality brought tears to my eyes in observing how righteousness has necessarily given way to political expediency. Attacked by a fellow radical abolitionist for his changes in position, the nearly destroyed Stevens can only admit that his goal is simply to get the bill passed; when asked if there was anything he might not say for that purpose, his only answer is a grim admission: “Seems not.”