Gettysburg Address is star of ABC movie


April 18, 1991|By Michael Hill

Ken Burns showed us in his PBS documentary that the "Civil War" produced enough true stories that fictionalizing this period of history should not be necessary.

Nevertheless, this broad and inviting canvas has provided a firm foundation for effective invented stories, from "The Red Badge of Courage" to "Gone With the Wind."

It serves that purpose well once again for ABC's Sunday night movie, "The Perfect Tribute," a moving interweaving of a fictional story and a fairly accurate accounting of the events surrounding the delivery of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

While the spotlight quite rightly shines on Jason Robards as Lincoln, young Lukas Haas gets much more time on screen as Ben Blair, a boy from Atlanta who dreams of the glory and conquest that his brother Carter is witnessing as a Confederate captain.

As the film, on Channel 13 (WJZ) Sunday night at 9 o'clock, opens, Ben is playing with his toy soldiers while Carter is engaged in the real thing, readying his troops for Pickett's Charge, the fateful attack by the Southern army on the final and decisive day of Battle at Gettysburg.

Carter is seriously wounded in the failed charge, taken prisoner and sent to a hospital in Washington, where he falls under the care of a dedicated nurse named Julia Warren, played by newcomer Jeanne Tribblehorn.

When the news reaches Atlanta, Ben leaves on an ill-advised trip to find Carter and bring him back home. Along the way, he is brutally stripped of his romantic notions of warfare.

Meanwhile, Lincoln, feels the ever-heavier burdens of the war and rails at the inability of his generals to press their advantage and end the slaughter.

Since the slow pace of the war has made Lincoln an unpopular president, the publicity-seekers responsible for a war cemetery in Gettysburg reluctantly invite him to its dedication. He is to give just a few remarks, as the keynote position was reserved for patriotic orator Edward Everett (Jose Ferrer).

Eventually, the two stories intertwine in a manner that is certainly melodramatic but is still a quite powerful attempt to capture the reason that these two minutes became Lincoln's most famous speech.

You get to hear the Gettysburg Address delivered twice, once by Lincoln -- Robards gives it a brilliant interpretation, almost extemporaneous, straight from a heavy heart -- and once by young Ben as Haas gives the type of reading it has withstood in classrooms across the country ever since. Both times, it can bring tears to your eyes.

Robards makes Lincoln a no-nonsense person. He projects a common-sense underpinning to a brilliant mind even through the makeup that almost immobilizes his face.

Haas -- big eyes and matching ears -- isn't as cute as he was in 1985 when he was the child in jeopardy in "Witness," but this talented young actor still projects an innocence whose inevitable loss is always painful.

"The Perfect Tribute" is a coming of age film for Ben, whose struggle stands as a metaphor for the coming of age that the Civil War meant for the country. It was a difficult process that seemed to strip the land of its naive notions and allow it to get on with the business of growing into nationhood.

Nicely directed by Jack Bender, with a fine supporting cast that includes Katherine Helmond as a tragic Confederate camp follower, Ed Flanders as newspaper publisher Charles Warren and Campbell Scott as Carter, "The Perfect Tribute" still doesn't come close to conveying the realities of this war.

Though one of its main themes is the horror of warfare, it still makes its hospital way too neat and clean, far from the bloody, germ-filled mess that actually confronted those who survived on the battlefield only to face an even tougher fight to stay alive.

The real problem with "The Perfect Tribute" is that it was made a generation too late. It was based on a story written in 1905 by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews that was clearly meant to help reconcile a still-divided country, in part by projecting a bit more into Lincoln's words than was probably actually there.

Had this run 25 years ago in the midst of the civil rights struggle, it would have been a powerful document. Though skillfully adapted for television by Dennis Brown, now, it seems like a period piece, emotionally affecting but finally forgettable.

"The Perfect Tribute"

*** A young Atlanta boy heads to Washington to find his brother, who was wounded at Gettysburg and while there has a chance encounter with President Lincoln, just back from delivering his address at that battlefield.

CAST: Jason Robards, Lukas Haas

TIME: 9 p.m. Sunday

Channel: ABC

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