Recently, a rather pernicious piece of disinformation has gained Internet traction falsely claiming Abraham Lincoln had owned slaves. He didn’t and anyone who suggests otherwise should lose all credibility. While the degree of Lincoln’s anti-slavery beliefs evolved and hardened during his public life, he always found chattel slavery morally reprehensible.
Lincoln also resided in free states, except for his childhood, when his family lived in such extreme, grinding poverty, the prospects of owning slaves were leagues beyond their reach, even if they were not philosophically opposed to the practice. The sheer magnitude of the future president’s rise from obscure poverty to the Oval Office is fully explored in the three-night docudrama “Abraham Lincoln,” which premieres Sunday, Feb. 20 on History Channel.
Directed by Malcom Venville (who also helmed the entertaining narrative films “Henry’s Crimes” and “44 Inch Chest”), “Abraham Lincoln” follows executive producer Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” as its roadmap and also features the historian as one of its talking-head experts. Unlike documentaries in the style of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” the docuseries also incorporates extensive dramatic segments, starring an eerily gaunt and haunted-looking Graham Sibley as the 16th President.
Physically, Sibley’s likeness as Honest Abe is as spot-on as Daniel Day Lewis or Raymond Massey, but it is hard to judge him against his predecessors, given the hybrid context of his dramatic work. Amongst the rest of the cast, the other notable standout would be Stefan Adegbola, who is also a dead-ringer for Frederick Douglass.
Aside from a few “teasers” of the grand events to come, Venville and company present Lincoln’s life in chronological order, beginning with his hardscrabble upbringing in Kentucky and Indiana in the opening “The Railsplitter,” which takes viewers up to the attack on Fort Sumter. “A President at War” covers the early Civil War skirmishes up to the prelude to Gettysburg, while “Saving the Union” starts with the turning point battle in Pennsylvania and concludes with the assassination of the President.
Perhaps the first episode is the one that most needs to be seen, given the aforementioned unfounded slander. Indeed, Lincoln’s family was desperately impoverished, so he had precious little formal education as a result. Yet, despite his rugged father’s scorn, he absorbed every book he could find. Viewers really see the extent of how hard he had to work to escape his family’s backwoods poverty. A.J. Edwards’ visually arresting “The Better Angels” dramatizes Lincoln’s childhood even more poignantly, but it somewhat redeems his stern father, whereas Goodwin and company only give him credit for teaching Lincoln how to tell an amusing anecdote.
Some of the best material in the “Railsplitter” illuminates Lincoln’s early but ostensibly undistinguished terms in the Illinois state legislature and his sole term in Congress. While many of the issues of the day (like the Mexican-American War) might seem like remote history now, they illuminate the principled thinking that guided Lincoln through times of national crisis.
Interestingly, Goodwin and company largely let Lincoln off the hook for suspending habeas corpus (with respects to arresting potential Confederacy sympathizers), which remains one of his most controversial decisions. On the other hand, all three nights emphasize the constant threats of assassination that he faced. Another justly recurring theme is Lincoln’s constant conflicts with his generals, who were largely overly-timid, incompetent, and sometimes borderline insubordinate, except for Grant out West.
Right for the Times
Of course, Lincoln’s anti-slavery positions and his willingness to fight for them are an abiding concern for Goodwin and her fellow on-camera experts. Yet, even those who hail from the left side of the political spectrum (like Barack Obama) acknowledge Lincoln’s role as a national emancipator. All three episodes are largely free of hyper “woke” rhetoric. However, it would have been wise to include a few known Republicans among the on-camera commentators, for the sake of bipartisanship. After all, Lincoln was the first Republican President.
Regardless, History Channel’s “Abraham Lincoln” gets a lot of things right. It celebrates the sacrifice of Lincoln’s close friend, Sen. Edward Baker (R-Oregon), who was the only member of Congress to fall in battle as a uniformed officer. The docuseries also fully establishes Lincoln’s wit and folksy charm, which is often overshadowed by the personal tragedies of his life. Naturally, those too get their full due.
Everyone in Venville’s series agrees Lincoln was the uniquely right man to be president at that fateful juncture, and the historical facts and analysis they marshal definitely backs up their case.
Recommended as a portrait of the man and an explanation of his greatness that we apparently now need, “Abraham Lincoln” airs Feb. 20-22 on History Channel.
Directors: Malcolm Venville
Stars: Graham Sibley, Stefan Adegbola, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Running Time: 7 hours, 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: TV-PG
Release Date: Feb. 20-22, 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5