ABRAHAM AND MARY LINCOLN: A HOUSE DIVIDED, An American Experience documentary, airs on PBS television February 19, 20, and 21.
It is almost impossible these days to imagine a TV documentary about the Civil War era that does not feature narrator David McCullogh, the obligatory violin-solo theme music, historian talking-heads offering expert commentary, and cameras slowly closing in on archival photographs for loving close-ups. And David Grubin’s new six-hour special, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, does not stray far from the proven “Ken Burns formula.”
There is much that is new to recommend it, however. The writing, by Grubin and Geoffrey C. Ward, is succinct, compelling, and often moving. The historians, among them Mark E. Neely, Jr., Frank J. Williams, David E. Long, James M. McPherson, John Hope Franklin, and particularly the irresistible David Herbert Donald, are often riveting. And Grubin adds lovely new film to the mix of old still photos–a rain-swept battlefield here, a clicking telegraph key there–providing drama and action. Viewers do not simply hear, for example, that young Abraham helped build his mother’s coffin; we see a primitive old hammer slamming a hand-wrought nail into a pine box.
The documentary takes an ambitious approach, weaving together the complex stories of the Lincolns’ public and private lives–with the dissolution of the Union adding new pressure to their own union. Although the documentary offers little that is new or surprising to the public side of the story (save for a rather unsympathetic view of Lincoln as Emancipator), the film treats Mary more tenderly than usual and makes the story of her difficult childhood, stormy courtship, and sad decline more comprehensible than ever. Particular credit must go to expert commentary by Jean H. Baker, Linda Levitt Turner, and Charles B. Strozier.
The documentary does an especially good job contrasting, in short segments, the squalor of Abraham’s childhood with the luxury of Mary’s. Later it turns a well-known exchange of letters between a lonely Congressman Lincoln and his faraway wife into a wonderful, even sexy dialogue, simply by panning back and forth from one handwritten note to the other.
Altogether, Grubin’s is a sumptuous package–beautifully filmed, wonderfully detailed, and historically sound. Unfortunately, it suffers from one glaring weakness. David Morse, the voice of Lincoln, reads private letters and public speeches alike in an unrelentingly soporific monotone. Holly Hunter, as Mary, sounds as if she is speaking with marbles in her mouth to moderate her Georgia accent, with a result only slightly more animated than Morse’s. What were these performers thinking?
HAROLD HOLZER is a historian and a member of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.