Friday, February 20, 2009

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

About a month ago, I reviewed a one-hour special on National Geographic channel called "The Real Abraham Lincoln. On Valentine's Day, NatGeo (as they seem to call themselves) unveiled a two-hour version. My polite description of the one-hour version was "disappointing." Two hours stripped away my reserve.

Awful. Dreadful. A complete waste of time. And I can't believe that National Geographic put their good name on it.

By the middle of the documentary, I felt bad for Harold Holzer, Richard Norton Smith, and Allan Guelzo, who offered interviews for the special. It's one thing to be misquoted. It's another for your quotes to be contextualized by mistakes, misinterpretations, and fraudulent historic dramatizations. How the filmmaker could take their good answers and come up with this documentary is beyond me.

The film, which hurries through the Lincoln biography so that it can focus a third of its time on the aftermath of the assassination, suffers from broad misconceptions about both its subject and its own scope. I stopped counting factual mistakes about 40 minutes into the film. It jumbles the chronology of Lincoln's life, but worse, it misunderstands the context for his life. The historical anachronism of the narration is stunning at times: once claiming that "[Lincoln] sees the railroad as a uniting force that can bind together a vast nation of immigrants in far-flung regions." Lincoln may have been a '60s liberal, but he was an 1860's liberal, not a 1960's liberal.

The less said about the life-action dramatizations, the better. Despite utilizing photographs to the contrary, this film always presents a bearded Lincoln, even in the scene where the 28-year-old moves to Springfield. A low budget might explain some problems, but the assassination scenes -- evidently really important to the writer/director -- are so inaccurate as to boggle the mind. The film shows the purported assassination attempt on Lincoln, but gets every detail wrong. The film shows the assassination, but so misrepresents the setting that one might think the Lincoln's were attending a private theater performance in a converted barn.

This is not a documentary about 'the real Abraham Lincoln,' at least it is not a documentary about the historical 16th president of the United States. Perhaps it's a documentary of Abraham Lincoln, the medical pitch-man. In any event, avoid this film like the plague.

The two-hour version of "The Real Abraham Lincoln" premiered on Saturday, February 14, 2009.

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