The problem faced by historical documentaries is the difficulty in capturing the three-dimensional complexity of the figures involved. Abraham Lincoln is one of the most polarizing figures of the 19th century; it’s difficult to find the balance between recognizing him as a mogul for social and political change, yet not perceiving him as the revolutionary spearheader for racial equality. He must be analyzed critically through the lens of his time — not retrospectively.
“Living With Lincoln”
HBO documentary “Living with Lincoln” didn’t face that problem; it barely mentioned slavery at all.
“Living with Lincoln” is the story of its director Peter Kunhardt’s family, and their relation to Lincoln — not by blood, but through an intense family obsession which began at the time of Lincoln’s presidency and has trickled down to the present. Kunhardt narrates the entire piece, explaining why his family (previously under the name Meserve) has the largest collection of Lincoln photographs and memorabilia. He speaks especially of his father and paternal grandmother and how their lives revolved around preserving Lincoln’s memory. Their family collection continues to play a role in developing Lincoln’s image in American society; the images used for the penny, the $5 and Mt. Rushmore were chosen from their collection.
The most interesting parts of the documentary are the shots of Kunhardt family’s rooms — overflowing with research, faded letters, crumbling journals, old glass plate negatives, daguerreotypes and salt prints, and more of the same packed away in boxes. The documentary was aesthetically pleasing in terms of cinematography, but that’s the most that can be said for it. While this family does have a unique and intimate knowledge of Lincoln, they seem to have forgotten what is most interesting for us to see. Instead, we’re given personal family background that often feels extraneous. Kunhardt juxtaposes the “darkness” surrounding Mary Todd with his own grandmother’s depression, making for an awkwardly forced comparison. Had the documentary been solely about Dorothy Kunhardt instead of Lincoln, or only about Lincoln without the extra family background, it would have felt much more grounded.
While it’s true that the purpose of the documentary isn’t to tell Lincoln’s story but how his story intertwines with that of the Kunhardt family, the lack of historical details and nuances is still surprising. There’s a lack of new information, give or take a couple amusing anecdotes. Kunhardt doesn’t even say the word “slavery” until halfway through the documentary. He refers to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment in one breath, too simply referring to the latter as the measure that “abolished slavery forever.” This is a gross simplification of what actually happened, as the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t just a precursor to the 13th Amendment. It had its own stipulations and didn’t actually set all the slaves free as is so often assumed. It was just as much a military maneuver as it was a social statement, and all of this is completely glossed over in the documentary.
The point of “Living with Lincoln” would have been easier to grasp if Kunhardt had chosen a style and stuck to it, like he has in his other works — either as strong a visual presence on screen, or an auditory presence or a completely distance from the story. His narration sounds too practiced and detached when talking about his own family and too familiar when speaking about Lincoln. His attempt at being both professional and the single voice of authority in a family project doesn’t work.