Filmmaker Ken Burns has come up with a novel way to promote his new film about the Gettysburg Address, and to celebrate the speech’s 150th anniversary on Tuesday. He’s encouraging Americans to film themselves reciting the two-minute-long address. Burns invites people to upload their versions to the website Learntheaddress.org, where he has posted videos of famous people doing the same: past presidents, entertainers, and athletes such as Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino. Most read the words straight and solemnly — though Stephen Colbert dons a fake Lincoln beard for a version that’s both viral and somewhat creepy. In one video, comedian Louis C.K. reads the address while his friend Jerry Seinfeld offers historical context. “It refocused the American ideal from the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence,” Seinfeld tells C.K. “That’s why the speech changed America.”
Every version is compelling in its own way, which is the point. Burns’s film, which will appear on PBS in the spring, is about the effect the speech has on a school in Vermont, where students are required to recite the address by heart. The “Learn the Address” project creates buzz for PBS’s big-brand filmmaker, but it also sends a message about the power of rhetoric, the beauty of Lincoln’s words, and the ideals that Lincoln was urging America to preserve. Burns’s mash-up of famous address-readers, which ends with America’s first black president, is in itself a powerful tribute to a nation’s full devotion.