Monday, November 19, 2012

Spielberg comes to Gettysburg

The 149th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

Seven score and nine years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered the most famous speech in world history--an oration that not only paid homage to the Union's dead, but helped set the course for America's mission in the centuries to follow.  Coinciding with this commemoration was the release of Steven Spielberg's newest epic Lincoln.  Concentrating on the passage of the 13th Amendment and Lincoln's final months, the movie uses the Gettysburg Address as the foundation for the subsequent political and moral struggles late in the Civil War.  To commemorate this saga and promote his new film, Spielberg traversed to Gettysburg to serve as the keynote speaker at the annual Dedication Day ceremony in Gettysburg's Soldiers' National Cemetery.  He is pictured above at the Soldiers' National Monument--the physical and symbolic heart of the burial ground.  To the right is Gettysburg College president Janet Morgan Riggs, writer Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Gettysburg National Military Park superintendent Bob Kirby at the far right.

Numerous groups and individuals lay wreaths at the base of this impressive monument every anniversary.  In the program booklet for the event, Spielberg was denoted as representing the People of the United States during the wreath laying.

The placement of these wreaths was followed by taps.  In his subsequent speech, Spielberg reflected how he was "humbled" by this place and its story.  I, for one, have always believed Spielberg is at his best when directing historical films.  I hope his inspiration in making Lincoln and visiting Gettysburg compel him to produce a Civil War miniseries as he had done for WWII with Band of Brothers.  Only time shall tell.

The crowds awaiting Spielberg were immense.  The above photo was taken about twenty minutes before the beginning of the formal ceremony.  Thousands of visitors surrounded me in all four directions.  I suspect this crowd on Cemetery Hill may be the largest assembled on site since 1863.  The weather was overcast at first, but not unpleasantly cold--much like the first Dedication Day nearly a century and a half earlier.

Spielberg was introduced by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who listed the filmmaker's long list of cinematic accomplishments.  Spielberg described how he wanted to humanize the 16th president in a way no other director had done.  He said, "The murder of Abraham Lincoln, the loss of Lincoln, is heartbreaking. I wanted to bring Lincoln back from his sleep of one-and-a-half centuries, even if only for two-and-a-half hours, even if only in a cinematic dream."

Here is Spielberg's speech in its entirety--courtesy of documentarian Jake Boritt.

Of course, Spielberg used the expertise of actor Daniel Day-Lewis to revive this sleeping giant.  He also stated that if and when he wishes to get in touch with his inner-Lincoln, he has Day-Lewis on speed dial to accommodate this desire.  The director noted that it was the power of dreams that motivated Lincoln, compelled Spielberg himself to make the movie, and inspires Americans to better their nation.

Following his address, Gettysburg Foundation president Joanne Hanley and Gettysburg National Military Park superintendent Bob Kirby presented Spielberg with a vibrant portrait of the 16th president by noted Lincoln artist Wendy Allen.  Nice, huh?

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of every Dedication Day remembrance is the naturalization ceremony which converts qualified foreign immigrants into United States citizens.  What better place to do this than Gettysburg?  Above, immigrants from a dozen different countries raise their right hands as they take the oath of citizenship.  I spoke with novelist Jeff Shaara later that afternoon, who was sitting nearby.  Every single inductee was crying as were citing their oaths, he said.  This special moment in their lives will create a bond to this unique place that will hopefully live on through their families and descendants.  For these new citizens, Gettysburg marks a "rebirth" in more ways than one.

Following the oath, everybody in the crowd and on stage stood up and waved the American flag in celebration of this milestone.  This was the moment of the loudest applause from the thousands present.  You can guess why.

Almost on cue, the skies opened up and the sun emerged in the clear southern sky.  I captured this photo of Old Glory as the VIP guests departed from the historic brick rostrum built in the early years of the cemetery.

Spielberg was very generous with the fellow guests and many visitors, taking time to allow for photographs, autographs, and greetings.  Here, he poses with the Gettysburg Area High School band members for a nice group shot on the brick rostrum.

Spielberg talks with Tina Grim of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania as he prepares to leave the site.

I had the opportunity to quickly meet Spielberg before he was completely overwhelmed by the masses.  The visitors ranged from high school students, to Civil War reenactors, to whole families who traveled far distances to be present.  Some begged for autographs of their Jaws posters while others merely wanted a nice photograph.  Considering the number of people present, Spielberg was most accommodating.

While Spielberg was making his graceful exit, I spotted the less noticeable writer Tony Kushner making his way down the speaker's platform.  As the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Angels in America, Kushner wrote the script for Spielberg's films Munich and Lincoln.  I had the chance to tell him how highly I thought of his Lincoln screenplay.  He replied that it was no easy task but ultimately a complete honor.  He too was very cordial and receptive.

I met numerous notables and old acquaintances today--all of them with special talents in history, film, or writing.  Many of them amaze me by the skill they possess.  Still, what amazes me most when I visit Gettysburg is the 3,512 men resting in the photo above.  Through these aforementioned scholars, we can gain a better understanding of why the sacrifices seen above still resonate in our own lives. Lincoln is one such measure that allows us to grasp what the Civil War truly meant.


  1. Great photos Jared, especially of the flag.

    John C. Nicholas

  2. Yes, Jared, I agree with Diane and John. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for the report Jared. I opted not to fight the crowds and attend this year so I greatly appreciate this.

  4. Fine report and beautiful layout!

    Just saw this movie and saw your posting on IMDB.

    (Could not make Captcha work on Firefox so am
    in on old IE now.)

  5. Trying again - another note.
    Re the high school band members Spielberg posted with, it struck me that in 1865 they would have been fighting to the death...

    What a waste, and what a decision to have to risk thousands more dead while waiting for a successful vote instead of taking peace terms. When it's your own son, the question takes on more complexity.