Students Memorize Gettysburg Address in Latest Ken Burns Documentary
On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to dedicate a cemetery at the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. The President kept his remarks to a mere two minutes, paling in length to that of the relatively long-winded Edward Everett, a former Secretary of State whose keynote speech lasted a couple hours.
Although one newspaper reporter would derisively dismiss Lincoln’s 272-word sermon as “silly, flat, dish-watery utterances,” it would prove to be a soliloquy for the ages. After beginning with the icon phrase, “Four score and seven years ago,” he proceeded to recount the lofty ideals which had inspired the Declaration of Independence before cleverly repositioning the Civil War as less a struggle to save the Union as a God-ordained fight for human rights.
“The Address” represents a bit of a departure for Ken Burns, a director long associated with painstakingly-researched, historical documentaries. For, this picture is set in the present at the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, an institution founded in 1978 for boys with learning disabilities ranging from dyslexia to dysgraphia to ADHD to executive function.
Nevertheless, the school has a tradition whereby every student is expected to comprehend and commit the Gettysburg Address to memory by the end of the school year in order to recite it individually in front of an auditorium filled with parents, guests and staff. This is no mean feat, given how the school serves as a refuge of last resort for kids who have basically been labeled unteachable everywhere else they’ve enrolled.
Burns’ camera was apparently afforded unusual access to the classrooms at Greenwood over the course of the year. So, we’re able to observe how a dedicated team of educators and therapists managed to instill enough confidence in all 50 members of the student body, no matter how crippling the fear or handicap.
The transformations are so remarkable by the day of the assembly that tears will reflexively roll down your cheeks in admiration of the children’s achievement. Moreover, don’t be surprised to come away from the experience with a deeper appreciation of the Gettysburg Address and maybe even a determination to memorize it yourself.
A current-day, Ken Burns PBS production every bit as moving as any of his nostalgic classics.
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 85 minutes
Studio: Florentine Films
The Address premieres on PBS on Tuesday, April 15th @ 9 pm ET/PT (check local listings)
To see a trailer for The Address: