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Review: 'Lincoln@Gettysburg' on PBS, a new slant on the old Address

November 19, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • President Lincoln (center, hatless) speaks at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, Nov. 19, 1863.
President Lincoln (center, hatless) speaks at the dedication of the Gettysburg… (Library of Congress )

There are anniversaries other than that of the Kennedy assassination this month: Nov. 19 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the remarkable little speech Abraham Lincoln made in 1863 to dedicate the cemetery built to accommodate the thousands killed that June in the famous Civil War battle, and whose words are as much a pillar of American political consciousness as anything the founding fathers dreamed up, four score and seven years before it.

The preamble and postlude to that event are examined, through a technological prism — the rise of the telegraph — in "Lincoln@Gettysburg," premiering Tuesday on PBS. There are a few linked ideas here. Lincoln was the first president for whom the telegraph was a strategic tool. (The South, by contrast, was not plugged in.) It served him in the waging of the Civil War, allowing him to remotely enter the tents of his generals, much to their displeasure, to query and command them, and also to gather information to chart and analyze Confederate movements over a great expanse of territory with modern speed and simultaneity.

It also helped him to sell the war. The point is made, more than once, that the 16th president understood spin and media in a new and modern way. "Lincoln would have been big time on Twitter," says one commentator, with speculative assurance. "He would have been pithy and short and smart and inspirational — and a little snarky."

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Lincoln spent a lot of time in the White House telegraph room, and though it stops short of claiming actual cause-and-effect, "Lincoln@Gettysburg" advances the notion that his address at Gettysburg — in its 272-word, 10-sentence perfection — was itself telegraphic, marvelously packed, pointed and compressed in a time when popular oratory was florid and feature-length. Politician-turned-professional-orator Edward Everett, the actual main act at Gettysburg, spoke for two hours, using 50 times as many words as Lincoln.

The documentary suffers from a surfeit of visual hectoring — absurd flash cuts and photo effects and title cards more appropriate to a basic-cable series about murderers or haunted mansions — and there is too much use of a man in a Lincoln suit, who never looks like anything more than a man in a Lincoln suit, to illustrate imagined moments in the historical drama. But none of that is fatal.

More profitably, there is a close reading of the document, whose brevity allowed it to be printed whole in newspapers across the country. Tony Kushner, who wrote Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," and Colin Powell are among the non-academic talking heads. David Straitharn narrates, as is altogether fitting and proper.


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