More than two years after its introduction on PBS, “The Civil War” still resonates. If not for the large audience drawn by Ken Burns’ landmark documentary series, it’s a certainty that ABC would not be presenting its own two-part “Lincoln” this weekend.
Airing at 8 tonight and 7 Sunday night on Channels 7, 3 and 10, “Lincoln” arrives at a time when the commercial network documentary is nearly extinct. It does not approach the size and scope of “The Civil War,” 11 commercial-free hours of historical filmmaking whose broad-canvas fusing of scholarship and entertainment redefined the genre.
Nonetheless, “Lincoln” stands tall on its own, reaffirming that, in skilled hands, documentary storytelling can be every bit as vivid and compelling as scripted drama.
As in “The Civil War,” a narrative is created by joining voice-overs with extraordinary old photographs, the eyes of the 16th President and others gazing eerily at you from the past. These photos are from the collection of Frederick Hill Meserve, whose great-grandson, Peter Kunhardt, produced and directed “Lincoln.”
The dominant voices, speaking words from diaries and other documents, are Jason Robards as Lincoln (who spoke for Ulysses S. Grant in “The Civil War”) and Glenn Close as Mary Todd Lincoln. James Earl Jones is the narrator. All do well. And among supporting voices, only when Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks for Lincoln’s Bavarian-born assistant, John G. Nicolay, are you conscious of an actor reading lines.
In contrast, Frank Langella’s plotting John Wilkes Booth (“The country was formed for the white, not for the black man”) is chillingly real enough to make you shudder.
Inevitably, this is as much a story about the Civil War as about a single individual, and Lincoln’s clashes with George McClellan and some of his other generals, and anguish over casualties (“I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it”), are reviewed here. Kunhardt achieves amazing fluidity with his still pictures.
The Lincoln-Douglass debates, which were among the seminal events in Lincoln’s life, are memorably resurrected here, making history stirringly come alive. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is another. Yet nothing in this documentary is more haunting--or more deeply deflating--than its step-by-step depiction of events leading to Lincoln’s assassination by Booth.
After tracing its subject’s adult life, “Lincoln” ends thunderously, a bit too much so given Jones’ description of him as being a man who was at once extraordinary and ordinary.