Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Books inspire two historical miniseries. Vidal's `Lincoln' says `here's how it might have been' ...

By Alan Bunce / March 24, 1988



Gore Vidal's Lincoln NBC, Sunday and Monday, 9-11 p.m. Historical drama based on the Vidal novel. Starring Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore. Directed by Lamont Johnson. Script by Ernest Kinoy. Looking like the Phantom of the Opera, President-elect Abe Lincoln is skulking into Washington, collar up and hat pulled down so he won't be recognized and possibly attacked. After all, it's a Southern town where drunken revelers are later heard openly singing ``Hang Abe Lincoln.''

Skip to next paragraph

``I don't care how many men General Scott has on the streets,'' says a worried aide at Lincoln's side. ``It's still a ... `secess' town.''

In one stroke, that pungent sentence - spoken with idiomatic flair very early in the show - establishes the potent sense of place, time, and feeling that makes this four-hour miniseries special. The man says ``secess'' naturally, using familiar slang for a boiling issue the way ``hawk'' or ``dove'' was later used about the Vietnam war.

That's how quickly the show starts giving emotional reality to its parade of familiar names and events. Although a historian was on hand during the filming, Civil War-era buffs will inevitably have a heyday finding flaws - as they already have with Vidal's historical novel. The series isn't exactly historical docudrama, but it will be read as history by many viewers, and the liberties taken trouble some experts. Yet there's not too much hokum in the way the show weaves apocryphal moments into established fact. It's saying that here's how it might have been - and much of the time you believe it.

Actually, much of the series' creative energy goes into making you feel the personal ambitions and raging social conflicts affecting so many people between the time Lincoln took office and his assassination. There's the casual but impassioned talk among Lincoln's son and friends - about North-South loyalties - that shows how the issue could have split brothers and intimates. And there are the well-staged battle scenes - where filmers drew on lots of sources - that almost let you smell the ground, feel the sun, hear the massed voices in the open air.

The human detail is often so compelling - especially with Abe and Mary Lincoln - that you tend to accept it without carping too much at the sometimes unflattering figure of Lincoln or at the loony harridan Mary Lincoln becomes. The show doesn't trace an outline of Lincoln as a giant and then proceed to color him in. It starts with authentic detail - costumes and music, for instance - and builds an evocative whole, only occasionally hitting the pinnacles we associate with the man Lincoln.

There's little moral posturing in Sam Waterston's fascinating Lincoln. In many ways he's the canny, kindly, cracker-barrel type of legend - a wily politician known to ``dodge and weasel and scheme,'' according to one enemy. Mr. Waterston's Lincoln affects the bemused drawl, the country twang wound around penetrating insights, but he doesn't rattle the air with a backwoods vibrato the way some Lincoln portrayers have. Waterston is good at tossing off critical lines without losing their impact.

His Lincoln often seems to lack spiritual energy. But he grows. Waterston builds a study in slow-motion equivocation at Cabinet meetings and elsewhere. Seward, his secretary of state, calls it ``an obvious inability to command,'' and you understand why he says it, because Waterston is so good at creating the ``galled and festering soul'' that Lincoln calls himself.

But you accept the way Seward becomes Lincoln's friend and supporter, because Waterston also captures Lincoln's common sense, insights, and goodwill. There's a tight smile behind the Lincoln eyes enjoying some joke the gods are playing amid the political shenanigans Lincoln himself embraces so enthusiastically. And there are lots of impressive moments of personal tragedy, of agony over the blood he has to spill to fulfill his mission, and the way his sense of predestined doom takes over the feeling of the drama.

If you had any misgivings about Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln, a few seconds of her virtuoso performance should wipe them out. She seems to be having a ball - to the point of showiness once or twice - establishing the strong, turbulent personality of Mary. Southern accent at full throttle, she creates a shrewd ex-belle in readings full of nuance, bite, and furtive undertones that occasionally mock her listeners.

Miss Moore is a marvel of skill in Mary's initial confrontation with her dressmaker, a former slave (memorably played by Ruby Dee), who later becomes her friend. Mrs. Lincoln seems to bait the woman with terrible accounts of slavery - all the while bubbling about the dress to be made.

But Mary ends by explaining that ``I am the one who wants slavery destroyed'' more than Lincoln himself. His opposition, Mary says, is not from the gut, like hers, but is political and philosophical. In fact, the show portrays Lincoln's proximate goals as not abolition but saving the Union, slave or free.

Moore traces a tragic figure who personifies a nation being torn apart by epic allegiances. Some of her own brothers are later killed fighting for the Confederacy. By the time she and Waterston are done, you feel you've been there - not always in the actual Lincoln presence, perhaps, but somewhere close to the human issues at the heart of the matter.