Exactly 149 years after Abraham Lincoln made a speech that he believed “the world will little note, nor long remember,” Steven Spielberg was keynote speaker at an event that annually proves him wrong.
Just days after Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln opened in theaters nationally, the Oscar-winning filmmaker paid tribute Monday to the 16th president’s Gettysburg Address at a windswept ceremony commemorating both that iconic speech and the 1863 transformation of a bloody battlefield into the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
“The murder of Abraham Lincoln, the loss of Lincoln, is heartbreaking,” Spielberg told the crowd. “And I admit that one of the reasons I wanted to make this film, I wanted – impossibly – to bring Lincoln back from his sleep of one-and-a-half centuries even if only for two-and-a-half hours, and even if only in a cinematic dream.”
Throughout award season, potential nominees are judged – as with any campaign – on the speeches they make, but in this case there was no trophy being presented, and few other thank-you remarks carry this much emotion or gravity.
“I’ve never stood any place on earth where it’s easier to be humble than here. Gettysburg. Delivering an address,” Spielberg said at the start of his speech. “Humble hardly covers it.
“It’s not just that I’m standing near where Lincoln stood when he delivered what many people, myself included, consider the most perfect prose poem ever penned by an American. It’s not just that I’m speaking where Lincoln uttered words that helped change the course of American history by changing how we understand ourselves and the whole point of American democracy.”
What Spielberg said he found most daunting was not just what Lincoln said in that spot, but the memory of the thousands who fought and died there. “All the glory and all the tragedy we associate with the Civil War resides most palpably, and most indelibly here,” he said.
“The reason for this concentration of heartbreak and heroism in a geographical location is simple, and Lincoln told us what it was that day, when he found his best and his truest voice: It’s the courage, the selflessness, the strength, endurance, heroism and the sacrifice of the patriots who are buried here – most of them terribly young men; men no older than my three sons. It’s the memory of those honored dead, those in their graves, and those who have never been found that brings all of America, always, back to Gettysburg.”
“On this sacred testing, proving ground, people willingly died to prove that people live together better if they refuse to oppress each other,” he added. “To prove, in other words, that democracy works.”
The director, who screened the film last week in Washington D.C. for President Barack Obama, also thanked the many historians in attendance, for giving him, Day-Lewis, and screenwriter Tony Kushner the facts necessary to give their historical fiction some truth. “We are filmmakers. We are not scholars, we are not historians, but we are deeply indebted to those of you who are,” he said.
The speech, which preceded a naturalization ceremony for immigrants becoming new U.S. citizens, had its light moments, too – something Lincoln, who was known for his sense of humor, might have appreciated.
“Like most people who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Abraham Lincoln, he has come to feel like one of my oldest and one of my dearest friends. I imagine I’m talking to many people who feel the same way,” Spielberg told the crowd. “I’m luckier in one sense than nearly all of you, in one sense – I have Daniel Day-Lewis’ phone number in my speed dial. And If I start to really miss him terribly, I can just call him up and ask him to tell me a story.”
As the crowd laughed, Spielberg admitted: “I haven’t done this. I have no idea what Daniel would think of me if I did. He would probably change his number, and that’s certainly what Lincoln would have done if he had a cell phone.”
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