Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A review of “Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided”

" 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."

- Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" speech (1858)

I have seen a lot of PBS's presidential biographies (eighteen in all), and many of them are compelling indeed. But my personal favorite would have to be this one about Abraham Lincoln. Technically, it is not a biography of Abraham alone, as it is also about his wife Mary. (Witness the title: "Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided.") But telling the story of either is also to tell the story of the other; and weaving them together as they are woven here, one gets a great view of both of them, especially during Lincoln's presidency.

Mary Todd Lincoln

The dual nature of this biography might be part of why it is six hours long; but I think it's also because Abraham Lincoln is more central to the American experience than any other man. He held the Union together, and freed four million Americans from bondage. These things alone would make him an interesting man to every American, but there is also the compelling nature of his personality, which is so little-known to the public today. Who would have thought that this unschooled man from the backwoods could become the greatest president the country has ever seen?

Of course, this is not the only biography of Lincoln, nor even the only television one. Public interest in the man has never died down since his time, so the literature about him is voluminous; and other media have depicted him often. What is it that makes PBS's movie different?

I think it is a number of things. One, this is a comprehensive TV series about his life, which you're not likely to find anywhere else. There have been many movies depicting parts of his life - the Steven Spielberg movie, for example, depicts the part of his presidency with the antislavery amendment; and John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" gives a good portrayal of his youth. There's nothing wrong with focusing on one part of his life; but if you're after something more comprehensive, dealing with both his early life and his presidency, your media options outside of books are probably somewhat limited. In the world of television, this is about as comprehensive a biography as you're likely to find of Lincoln.

Henry Fonda as "Young Mr. Lincoln"
(who really was clean-shaven in his youth),
in the John Ford movie of that name from 1939

For another thing, this is a documentary; which gives it some advantages that a Hollywood movie does not have. In saying this, I mean no disrespect to the Hollywood movies mentioned; as I have much appreciation for the power of good re-enactments. But a documentary can depict its topic through visual sources of its subject, which for Abraham Lincoln involves a significant number of photographs; not only of him and his wife, but of his children, his associates, and the tumultuous events of his presidency. This is less true for the first two episodes, which deal with the portion of his life before the invention of photography; but the four episodes about the Civil War have many photographs to choose from - photographs which have a surprising power to dramatize their topic.

Photograph of the real Lincoln, 1865

For another thing, this is among the better-made documentaries out there; as it was made by David Grubin, a classic Ken Burns-style filmmaker. If you liked Ken Burns' series about the Civil War, you will especially like the episodes about Lincoln's presidency; as this movie has the same narrator, main scriptwriter, network, and general style as "The Civil War" (not to mention highly overlapping subject matter).

The filmmaker David Grubin is a master of documentary biography, as he has also done biographies of four other presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, and LBJ); not to mention a superb biography of Napoleon. I have watched all of these, and I am a tremendous fan of all of them. But even though his other presidential biographies have video footage of their subjects while this one doesn't (the technology wasn't invented until long after Lincoln's time), this is still my favorite biography of his, because of my tremendous fascination with Abraham Lincoln. The ones that come closest to approaching it are PBS's movie about Ulysses S. Grant, and its ones about various Founding Fathers. But in my book, this biography is still the best - perhaps not as good as Ken Burns' "The Civil War," but in the world of biography, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better documentary than this one. Highly recommended to those who want a comprehensive overview of Lincoln's life.

"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

- Closing lines of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1861

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Preview at PBS website

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln movie review

Civil War miniseries (PBS)

Jefferson Davis movie

Ulysses S. Grant movie

Part of a series about
The Presidents

George Washington 1789-1797
John Adams 1797-1801
Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
James Madison 1809-1817
John Quincy Adams 1825-1829
Andrew Jackson 1829-1837
Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865
Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877
Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909
Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921
Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933-1945
Harry Truman 1945-1953
Dwight Eisenhower 1953-1961
John F. Kennedy 1961-1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963-1969
Richard Nixon 1969-1974
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981
Ronald Reagan 1981-1989
George H. W. Bush 1989-1993
Bill Clinton 1993-2001

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