The president who walked a tightrope
Lincoln’s Dilemma depicts our 16th president’s challenge of defeating slavery while trying to keep the Union together
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More books have reportedly been written about Abraham Lincoln than any historical figure other than Jesus. Lincoln’s Dilemma, a new four-part docuseries based on a recent Lincoln tome, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, by David S. Reynolds, began Feb. 18 on Apple TV+.
This is one of those times where the book really is better than the film, though the film provides several positive features. Chiefly, the plethora of restored archival Civil War–era photos shows the rawness and division of the times unlike words alone can—like those of corpses strewn across battlefields, regiments of weary soldiers separated by race, close-ups of slaves’ backs scarred by whippings, and glimpses into Lincoln’s soulful, sad eyes.
The documentary commendably describes in his own words how Lincoln’s moral repugnance of slavery grew to not just halting its spread, but to abolishing it everywhere. Using the illustration popular at the time of tightrope walker Charles Blondin crossing the 1,100-foot Niagara Gorge, the film exemplifies Lincoln’s dilemma. His balancing act was between performing as a Republican president trying to preserve the Union—his initial impetus for war—and wanting emancipation for slaves—his ultimate motivation for victory. We learn how Lincoln struggled to figure out how to do both and how his thoughts evolved as he had more contact with former slaves.
Through primary sources, the film provides insights into Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass, African American abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. It expounds on how Douglass greatly influenced Lincoln, as well as his admiration for all the president accomplished in four short years.
After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson impeded plans for genuine reconstruction, allowing the South to continue racist policies and paving the way for Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Seeing this may help viewers better understand today’s pushback against Confederate symbolism and statues.
But the film grossly overreaches when opening scenes show the Jan. 6, 2021, breach of the U.S. Capitol, as if to put that incident on the same level as Civil War–era divisions. And during one episode, a historian condescendingly says, “Let me remind you that the Republican Party then (during the Civil War) is not the Republican Party today, and the Democratic Party then is not the Democratic Party today. They have switched.” The random statement goes unchallenged, unsupported by evidence, and hinders the series’ focus on Lincoln and his times.
I wish Reynolds himself was on-screen more—he, after all, wrote the book—rather than so many other liberal historians. That also might have alleviated some of the occasionally preachy tones and ponderous narration. Still, I learned more about Lincoln, making me thankful again that God preserved him long enough to preserve our United States and abolish slavery.
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