Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TV Review: "The Real Abraham Lincoln" (National Geographic documentary)

Last night, National Geographic Channel premiered their new one-hour "docudrama" about Lincoln, called "The Real Abraham Lincoln." (National Geographic has several programs called "The Real..." -- last night they followed "The Real Abraham Lincoln" with "The Real George Washington.") The program attempts to bring Lincoln to life by using an actor to portray him in several reconstructed scenes and offering occasional first-person narration.

Overall, the program is disappointing. One hour, less commercials, is too little time to present Lincoln's full cradle-to-grave biography. There were erratic jumps, complete with several misaligned images/dramatizations that did not mesh with the biographical narration. Worse, there were several misrepresentations in the film. Not only were the scenes with Lincoln dramatized, but the first-person narration was not constructed from Lincoln's own words. And to my ear they failed to sound much like Lincoln's own voice, offering too much detail about certain things in the wrong ways in the interest of quick personal disclosure. (While such personal disclosure is common on reality television, it was a very rare thing with Lincoln.)

Unlike some dramatizations, the actor playing Lincoln is very similar facially, and sometimes looks eerily like Lincoln must have in close-up. However, this impact is quickly lessened by the inadequate use of these dramatizations. In most of them, Lincoln appears alone on screen, or at most, in one scene, with a photographer and photographer's assistant. Lincoln walks alone through the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Lincoln rides alone on a train. Lincoln rides alone on horseback. Lincoln stands alone and looks out the window. The more I read about Lincoln's life, the clearer it becomes that he rarely had time to himself without people around him. Dramatizing the business and noise around Lincoln, from the war effort, to the public, to his family would have been interesting -- evidently it also would have been too expensive for this production.

By now, it feels like I'm picking on the documentary. And I haven't even mentioned the specific historical errors that creep into the narration, such as the locomotive steam engine appearing in Lincoln's life a good ten years too early and the later rather absurd suggestion that the north won the Civil War because they used their superior (and growing) railroad mileage effectively. Given that the Confederacy proved much more adept at using the railroad to move men and supplies quickly, this is certainly a dubious claim.

In the film, three authors/scholars are interviewed: K. M. Kostyal (who evidently writes young adult books for National Geographic), Richard Norton Smith, and Allan Guelzo. Of these, only Guelzo comes across very well, despite some clear quick edits in his comments. By the end, it seemed like listening to him talk for an hour (less commercials) would have been more helpful than this "docudrama."


Sarah R said...

I'd like to tell you that Smith was my professor for a class on the presidents. He is fabulous and knows his stuff. I recommend before criticizing him, read his book on Washington and take one of his classes. He's been one of the best professors I have ever had. There is a reason he spoke at Ford's funeral.

Joshua Patty said...


I wasn't criticizing Richard Norton Smith in this review. I was criticizing the documentary's director, who I think unfairly edited Smith's comments during the film and wasted his expertise. I would have liked to have heard more from Smith.

I'm glad you enjoyed your class with Prof. Smith. I met him briefly when I visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield shortly after it opened. He seemed very nice, and friendly with all of the visitors (there were a lot that day).


Erwin said...

thank you for the review about the documentary, it helps me a lot, thank you.