‘Lincoln’ screenwriter shares hidden gems about Honest Abe
When you read the speech, it’s 720 words — and over 500 of them are one-syllable words. The personal pronoun is only used once, and it’s used to connect him to a group of people. Some of the sentences are long and elaborate, but they’re not adorned. He doesn’t get poetic in a certain sense until the last three paragraphs when he starts talking about God. Even in the poetic part, there’s an astonishing plainness in Lincoln. You can feel the beginning of modernity, beginning to move from a European writing to something new and American.
You think this must have been delivered in a style of smallness and modesty that the speech is so powerfully expressive of. And when I see Lincoln on film giving speeches, I’ve only ever seen it (where) he hooks his thumbs in his lapels and says his piece in this very simple bump-de-bump-de-bump way. It never occurred to me, and I don’t think it’s ever occurred to anyone, what Daniel discovered: that Lincoln, this man who went to the theater all the time, would’ve used 19th century stage language with his body and his gestures as part of his speaking style — that it would’ve been a performance, not a modest kind of mumbling through.
First of all, it makes sense just for the sheer technical necessity of getting an unamplified human voice to carry out over a crowd of 50,000 people in the open air. And this guy has been on the stump for a really long time, so he knew how to make public speeches that could (really) be heard. He had a high voice, but it was a powerful voice when he wanted it to be. And also, there were no Jumbotrons — everyone in the crowd of 50,000 was looking at the one tiny figure on a huge platform with a lot of people around him.
We filmed (this scene) very close to the end of the filming. Steven (Spielberg) and I were standing at the edge of the crowd to see if we could hear him — and we could hear him. Daniel was up there, and after watching the rest of the work that Daniel was doing, which was so beautifully quiet and contained and restrained for the most part, it was a shock to me and to everybody. It felt on some level like, "This is a legitimate historical discovery. This guy must have been exactly like that. This is as close as we’ll ever get to what that looked and sounded like."
That was a great thrill. Every time I see it, I kind of smile and think,"‘Wow — if nothing else, we’ve contributed this." I want Lincoln historians to pay attention to it, because I think it’s worth considering.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.
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