Sunday, February 15, 2009

TV Review: "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" (PBS)

The stalwart PBS American documentary series "American Experience" returns to the subject of the sixteenth president with a new 90-minute documentary that offers a fairly straight-forward, and surprisingly straight-laced (even by PBS standards), look at "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln." Having previously done a three-part, six-hour, dual biography of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln in 2001, this film on Lincoln's death serves as the series bicentennial year contribution.

Like all of the American Experience films, this documentary by writer/director Barak Goodman has high-quality technical elements, features a clear narration (by Oscar-winning actor Chris Cooper), and lots of good interviews. For anyone with a limited knowledge of the assassination, this film offers a basic introduction to the events surrounding the crime. It is especially strong in establishing the fundamental timeline of the night of the assassination and the days following.

The challenge for anybody tackling this particular aspect of the Lincoln biography is that the assassination has become quite a cottage industry, with significant numbers of books written over the years and, incredibly, multiple "assassination tours" offered by guides in the DC area of associated sites. Moreover, some of the information in many of these books, when carefully studied, is suspect when put under a historical microscope.

Happily, the documentary carefully wades through the material and stays, almost entirely, on solid evidential ground, except for a fleeting unsupported assertion of Mary Surratt's innocence at the film's end. And the interviews, liberally used, feature several good scholars and experts; alongside such strong general experts like Harold Holzer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, James McPherson, and Allen Guelzo are specific assassination experts: Terry Alford, editor of John Wilkes Booth's sister's memoir, Gene Smith, author of a book about the Booth family, James L. Swanson, author of the popular Manhunt about the chase for Lincoln's killer, and Edward Steers, Jr., who has published multiple books on Lincoln's assassination, including probably the best single volume, Blood on the Moon.

Early on, it becomes clear that the filmmakers are intent on exploring the assassin's motive for the crime, and there is a consistent focus on Booth's rationale for his actions before and after Lincoln's assassination. This focus leaves less time for other interesting and sizable pieces of the story, such as the public reaction and displays of grief during the elaborate two week funeral journey of Lincoln's body from Washington to Springfield. Unfortunately, the film only makes clear that Booth was not insane; the rest of the portrait is incomplete. This highlighted an omission in the film that surprised me; Michael Kauffman, author of the recent book on Booth American Brutus, was not interviewed, nor was there evidence that his careful (if sometimes unbelievable) study of this issue of motivation was consulted.

Aside from that, though, part of the problem dealing with Booth's motive is that the film devotes very little time to the kidnapping conspiracy from which the assassination eventually hatched. The kidnapping conspiracy is mentioned, as is the most particularly far-fetched plan that Booth tried to develop -- abducting Lincoln from Ford's Theater. But the very plausible plan to kidnap Lincoln riding alone between the White House and the Soldier's Home, which the conspirators testified was attempted, is never mentioned.

The reason for this, I suspect, is that the filmmakers don't want to touch the myriad conspiracy theories of who was behind this conspiracy, which have attempted to implicate everyone from Confederate leaders (notably Jefferson Davis) to Union government officials (including Edwin Stanton) to Northern businessmen. However, there is strong circumstantial evidence that Booth was somehow connected with the Confederate Secret Service, perhaps receiving funding and certainly receiving assistance during his escape from known Confederate operatives. Steers is convinced that parts of this conspiracy are highly plausible and incorporated them into his book. If he mentioned them during his interviews, those comments were not used. And I find Steers' logic persuasive.

This criticism aside, the documentary is a solid and steady retelling of Lincoln's assassination. Experts and Lincolnophiles will find almost nothing of note here -- though I was intrigued by Alford's colorful explanation of why Dr. Samuel Mudd evicted the injured fugitive Booth from his house: with his wife and children there, "Mudd simply could not afford a shootout in the family parlor." But it is a serviceable and informative film for others.

"The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" premiered on Monday, February 9, 2009.

No comments: