Misc. Reviews


By • Feb 15th, 2005 •

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Airs on the American Experience, PBS, Monday, February 19, Tuesday, February 20, and Wednesday, February 21.

This moody and evocative program examines the life and times of the Great Emancipator and his wife, the first (so named) “First Lady” of the land. Through diary entries, old photographs, period objects, portraits, and historians’ musings, the personalities, difficulties, great griefs and triumphs of the couple are brought to life. Although the producers have not used actors to reconstruct historical scenes, they often rely on the motion of things to keep the film alive. Horses hooves clip through the frame and stop suddenly, as the narrator speaks of a dangerous carriage ride. Rain falls heavily onto hundreds of umbrellas (lots of weather in this picture) as Lincoln bids farewell to the citizens of Springfield. The wheels of a train roll forward on the tracks as Lincoln makes his triumphant journey to Washington, and his sad journey home. When the narrator recalls Mary’s one confidant in Washington, the seamstress and former slave Elizabeth Keckly, the camera focuses on hands patiently stitching, while a woman hums soothingly in the background.

The first two parts of the program (to be shown on President’s Day), tell of the early lives of the two–she a charming southern belle, and he, a poor, illiterate farmer’s son. To me, this was the least interesting part of the series, because it involved a lot of historians making educated guesses about the psychological make-up and childhood scars of its characters. However, I did learn of the extreme ambivalence (on Lincoln’s part) with which their partnership began, and also that lawyers in Illinois used to sleep five to a bed!

The second and third sections of the film, though, were thoroughly engrossing. Here Lincoln’s presidency–the Civil War–is explored. In spite of the controversy that surrounded his choices, his lack of experience, his own depression and self-doubts, Lincoln was transformed by the War, from an untried leader who was just trying to patch up a divided country, to a commander in chief, who ultimately felt that the War was God’s just retribution upon the citizen’s–both Southern and Northern–for having allowed slavery to continue for 250 years. Mary, whose grief and isolation grew, as her husband became more and more the country’s leader, and less and less her companion and caretaker, found what little solace she could in mediums and furious shopping.

Although this program focuses on the twin biographies of the Lincolns’, Lincoln’s key position in the most troubled time in this country’s existence (600,000 dead) means that many events and people from the era are brought to life. Frederick Douglas, General George McClelland, the bloody battles, the political campaigns, the plight of freed African-Americans, and many, many more all enrich the story.

The production has an elegant and somber look, due to the cinematography of James Callanan, enhanced by the mostly melancholy music by Michael Bacon. In addition, PBS has terrific supplemental material on its Web site (www.pbs.org). Do a search for “Abraham and Mary Lincoln” and you will encounter transcripts for all episodes, interviews with Grubin and Callanan, lists of sources, documents about slavery and the place of women in the 1860s, essays about the decisive battles, and a teacher’s guide.

Produced and co-written (with Geoff Ward) by David Grubin Cinematography by James Callanan
Music by Michael Bacon
Edited by Seth Bomse.

Narrated by David McCullogh.
Voice of Lincoln: David Morse.
Voice of Mary: Holly Hunter.

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