Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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‘Gettysburg’ takes new twist on technology

Although there were many commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg earlier this year, Tuesday marks the anniversary date of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address that followed a few months after the battle.

PBS commissioned documentary filmmaker Peter Schnall and his Partisan Pictures to craft a program tied to the anniversary, although at first Schnall was dubious about his ability to come up with something new. Turns out, there was plenty to fill the hour-long Lincoln@Gettysburg (9 p.m. Tuesday).

''We had the same thought because there had been so many films certainly made about the Gettysburg address and the battle," Schnall said, "but then we began to look into what brought Lincoln to this moment and what completely astonished me, and I'm a lover of Lincoln and his speeches, but I never knew how much he was a master of this whole frontier of new technology and communication."

Steven Spielberg's 2012 Lincoln film showed the President in a telegraph office, but Lincoln@Gettysburg delves deeper into the impact of this new technology — for both managing a war and managing the message he wished to send to the American people.

The film uses some re-created scenes interwoven with interviews with historians and other experts.

Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell discusses the impact of the telegraph on Lincoln's generals, who were unaccustomed to having the President calling the shots from afar. Former Bill Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman discusses the crafting of a political message in the Gettysburg Address. And Tony Kushner, screenwriter of Spielberg's Lincoln, explores the style of writing in Lincoln's famous Gettysburg speech.

Lincoln@Gettysburg might attempt to stretch parallels with today a little too much at times — MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry suggests President Lincoln "would have been big time on Twitter" — but there are some unquestionable comparisons between the advent of a new technology in 1863 and the rise of social media and contemporary communication today.

''We wanted to make something that was different but also had a contemporary feel to it so audiences today, and young folks in particular, could really grasp what Lincoln was doing," Schnall said. "This whole notion of communicating a message is in some ways the 19th century version of the Internet. He was getting his message and words out to generals and newspapers and the populace in general in a way no other president had done before."

Schnall said the story of the telegraph is the catalyst for a larger examination of Lincoln's perspective on the days leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg and the months that followed.

''The revelation to me as a producer was to understand Lincoln was very much watching the battle and was in communication with his generals leading up to the battle," Schnall said.

In the film, author Tom Wheeler, who wrote the 2008 book Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War, says, "You can think about the telegraph room at the War Department as the first Situation Room. It's the equivalent to [President] Obama sitting in the Situation Room watching the raid against Bin Laden."

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