Not until the plans were made, and executed, did the meaning of the date sink in.
Sure enough, though, I attended a screening of Lincoln last Monday, exactly 149 years to the day after the 16th president, on Nov. 19, 1863, ventured to the dedication of a new cemetery at Gettysburg and delivered the “few appropriate remarks” that became the most famous and meaningful speech in American history.
Those 272 words, memorialized and memorized by generations, form the basis of the very first scene of Steven Spielberg’s instant masterpiece. It comes from soldiers, both white and black, reading back the speech to Abe as he bids them farewell on their latest trip to the front lines.
Right there, and in every scene that follows, we are transformed back to a time when our nation’s very existence was still in question, and it took a particular, self-made genius from the Midwest to try and bind things back together amid fratricidal bloodshed unimaginable to our times.
From the moment it was known that Spielberg had gained the rights to adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful Team of Rivals for the big screen, the apprehension, and excitement, grew. What would our most famous and imaginative filmmaker do with the large, overwhelming subject of the greatest president in our history?
Libraries are filled with exhaustive scholarship dealing with Abraham Lincoln. Add to it the multiple potrayals of him in movies and TV, and the inevitable caricature that emerges – tall man, beard, honest – are so ingrained that to shake that image is nearly impossible.
That’s the challenge Spielberg, and screenwriter Tony Kushner, faced. Skilled as they are, it still would have been quite easy, and quite understandable, for them to turn Lincoln into something sprawling and myopic, a life treatment of the man that would make him heroic, almost saintly.