Lincoln Reconstructed

In a way, Peter Kunhardt grew up in the company of Abraham Lincoln. Kunhardt is a documentary producer whose great-grandfather, Frederick Hill Meserve, amassed the largest private collection of 19th-century American photographs-and at its center loomed the haunting visage of the 16th president. As a boy, Kunhardt regularly helped his grandmother, who inherited both Meserve's collection and his passion for Lincoln artifacts, cart boxes stuffed with the tens of thousands of photos between bank vaults and warehouses and her New York brownstone (already crammed with everything from locks of Lincoln's hair to his wife's traveling commode). Eventually, Kunhardt himself became keeper of the flame: most of the boxes ended up in his attic. Two years ago the producer decided to see if he had the makings of a documentary. "When I opened the first box," he recalls, "the smell that hit me was very old. But those 130-year-old pictures were amazingly sharp and clear. Lincoln never looked more riveting."

Next weekend the rest of America gets to see for itself. Kunhardt's four-hour "Lincoln," airing Dec. 26 and 27 on ABC, has several similarities to another historical epic, Ken Burns's "The Civil War." Besides covering some of the same ground, it uses special camera techniques to imbue vintage stills with a sense of movement and employs lots of celebrity larynxes to speak for the dead.

Now for a difference. While "The Civil War" was a documentary masterpiece, "Lincoln" is merely superb-at once wrenching drama and vividly illuminating history. TV's first full biography of our greatest president also underscores just how much political times have changed. Think of it: a man who won the White House without holding a single press conference and who granted so few photo ops that half the electorate didn't know what he looked like. As for sound bites, his most memorable-at a cemetery, yet-ran for 267 words.

"Lincoln" is also part of TV's latest programming twist: the history lesson. Documentary makers and their corporate patrons are simultaneously feeding and exploiting a burgeoning appetite for the stuff of America's past. Traditionally, programmers haven't shown much interest in history because no one thought audiences did. The success of "The Civil War" in 1990 proved just how wrong they were. But it's another PBS product, "The American Experience," that pointed the way. Over the course of five years, this weekly documentary series has established that well-shown history can draw big audiences on a regular basis. Ratings for the program's recent portrait of the Kennedys outscored PBS's average by a whopping 173 percent.

The medium got the message. Suddenly the past is beginning to look like TV's future. Coming up are no fewer than five massive documentaries on the settling of the West, including a 10-hour syndicated series from Warner Bros. narrated by Jack Lemmon. Ted Turner's TBS, meanwhile, has commissioned a six-hour study of Native Americans. And in 1994 PBS will unveil Ken Burns's nine-part history of baseball. The "biovid" is also experiencing a popularity surge: check your PBS and cable listings for portraits of Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Benedict Arnold, Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan, among a gallery of others.

Why now? One theory holds that the networks' "reality based" craze has stimulated viewers' taste for nonfiction while creating a hunger for something more intellectually nourishing. "They're tired of being manipulated," says Judy Crichton, executive producer of "The American Experience." "They still want reality, but they're smart enough to sense what's honest and what isn't." Crichton also credits the documentary makers themselves-and Ken Burns agrees. "Historical documentaries used to mean something boringly didactic," says Burns. "But now we've learned how to relate more than just the facts of a story. We've learned how to communicate deep emotional truths. Ironically, the medium most responsible for our national amnesia is turning the telling of history into a popular art form."

"Lincoln" isn't quite art, but it's sure to get viewers emotionally involved. This family project (coproduced and written by Peter Kunhardt's father, a former Life magazine editor, and his brother, an Episcopal minister and writer) shows us a president in almost constant pain. Lincoln's travails included the death of a child; a jealous, shopaholic and delusional wife; incompetent army commanders; Indian uprisings, and a savagely critical press (among its words for him: "tyrant" "infidel" and "utterly foolish"). Perhaps as a result, he suffered from serious, even suicidal, depression: one intimate described him as "crazy as a loon." All Lincoln himself ever allowed was that "I am the tiredest man on earth."

It is this Lincoln-the flawed yet recognizable human being inside the granite myth-who gives the film its credibility while helping it avoid the trap of hagiography. The Kunhardts know how to use the trivial to get at the complex. Their Lincoln hates his size-14 feet. He stores important papers in his stovepipe hat. He tells ribald stories, then cackles like a schoolboy. He tries to make a visiting delegation of Indians comfortable by speaking in bad English: "When go back Iowa?" He's enormously attractive to women but, he confesses, "I have a great terror of strong-minded ladies." He dreams of his own death and grieves intensely over news of a battle's slaughter. "My God! My God! ... I cannot bear it! I cannot bear it!"

In addition to its protagonist, whose voice is supplied by Jason Robards, "Lincoln" has 71 other characters, and its creators enlisted a remarkably eclectic cast to read their words: Glenn Close (as Mary Lincoln), Rod Steiger (Ulysses S. Grant), Stacy Keach (George McClellan), Richard Dreyfuss (William T. Sherman), Frank Langella (John Wilkes Booth), Ossie Davis (Frederick Douglass), Maureen Stapleton (Lincoln's stepmother), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Lincoln's personal assistant) ... Arnold Schwarzenegger? The explanation can only lie in his and Lincoln's mutual devotion to the Republican Party.

Unfortunately, the Kunhardts haven't matched the seamless pacing that Burns achieved in "The Civil War." Their flashbacks are both jarringly placed and awkwardly introduced by voiceovers ("Who was this strange, rough-hewn man from the backwoods of America?"). And unlike Shelby Foote, the folksy scholar who served as Burns's tour guide, James Earl Jones narrates "Lincoln" with his usual portentousness.

Of course, it's the pictures that are supposed to move us-and do they ever. From the earliest daguerreotype of that awkward Illinois lawyer to his final majestic portrait, "Lincoln" gives us the most magnificent photographic record of its subject ever put on public display. The documentary's own camera work enhances its impact. "We filmed the photos in extremely intimate close-up," says Peter Kunhardt. "To convey Lincoln's character, we literally tried to get inside his eyes."

The effect is eerie. "Cameras," Lincoln complained as he sat for an official picture, "are painfully truthful." Indeed so, and they've never exposed so much of a president's anguish. To see how rapidly Lincoln's countenance aged his years in office-its ruts turning to crevices as those sad gray eyes gaze out above deepening black rings-is to witness a man being killed by his job. To paraphrase Kunhardt, television has rarely been more riveting.