Tuned In: 'Lincoln@Gettysburg' special looks at the president's use of a then-new technology

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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 suitable program tied to the anniversary, although at first Mr. Schnall was uncertain 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, WQED-TV).

"We had the same thought because there had been so many films certainly made about the Gettysburg address and the battle," Mr. 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."

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday, PBS.
Narrator: David Stratharin.

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

The film uses some re-created scenes -- shot at a re-enactment in Gettysburg this summer and on a train at the Strasburg Railroad in Lancaster County -- 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 Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman discusses the crafting of a political message in the Gettysburg Address. And Tony Kushner, screenwriter of Mr. Spielberg's "Lincoln," explores the style of writing in Lincoln's famous Gettysburg speech.

"Lincoln@Gettysburg" may 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," Mr. 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."

Mr. 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," Mr. 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 Barack Obama sitting in the Situation Room watching the raid against Bin Laden."

But "Lincoln@Gettysburg" also examines the text of the 272-word Gettysburg Address and notes how it begins with a reference to the writing of the Declaration of Independence -- "Four score and seven years ago," which means 87 years ago, or 1776 -- and not the Constitution in 1787.

"It was the Declaration that said, 'All men are created equal,' which was later redefined by the Constitution," Mr. Schnall said. "And as many of our interviewees said, it was just brilliant for Lincoln to lead the thought back to the Declaration and remind the populace of what this nation stood for, what the revolution was all about."

As for the film's title, Mr. Schnall said his team came up with the idea to use the familiar "@" symbol to draw attention to the similarities in communication revolutions then and now.

"Once we came up with it we totally fell in love with it but it took a while for PBS to go for it," he said. "They wanted to make sure it wasn't too cute. To us it really spoke to that comparison between how we communicate today and how Lincoln was communicating through his electronic messaging 150 years ago."


Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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