As Presidents Day approaches Monday, the History Channel is set to premiere its new documentary, “Abraham Lincoln,” a three-night series based on a biographical study of the 16th president. During the TV Critics Association’s winter press tour, network executives and the documentary’s executive producers discussed the network’s unique partnership with Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, a prominent presidential historian, to develop the series of network events on presidential documentaries.
The History Channel’s executive vice president and chief programming officer, Eli Lehrer, noted that two years ago the network decided to make the History Channel “the premier destination for presidential documentary event series.” As he explained, “These are projects that tell the definitive and often complex stories of our most influential leaders through the voices of leading experts on the subject.” The network’s first run in this series was “Washington,” which premiered two years ago with 2.6 million viewers, becoming the number one miniseries on cable in nearly three years. And after “Abraham Lincoln” debuts this weekend, the network plans to premiere a three-night documentary about Theodore Roosevelt on Memorial Day weekend.
Kearns Goodwin, the historian who wrote the book “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” on which “Abraham Lincoln” is based, spoke about what she believes makes the 16th president a fascinating figure to bring to life in the screen. “I think what the show is going to be able to do is take Lincoln when he was just Abe. And Graham [Sibley] plays it from the age of 21, which is incredible, and he will play it until the age of 56. And you see a man that’s contradictory as to whether he’s going to choose emancipation or whether he’s just going to choose union. .. he has all kinds of depressions that he has suffered from all his life, but humor is how he finds his resilience,” she remarked.
Executive producer Dave Sirulnick added that it is important for a viewer to better understand a person, in this case Abraham Lincoln, by learning about and seeing his life before all his accomplishments, i.e. before he not become president. “He’s a man you followed, not an icon,” Sirulnick said. He continued, “And I think Graham did a great job embodying that, and as a viewer you grow with Abraham when he becomes president. And then you’ve gained all that understanding, so when he makes these incredibly difficult decisions and important decisions and it’s all on his shoulders, you as a viewer have empathy for what he’s going through because you’ve connected with him as a person.”
Sirulnick also explained that “Abraham Lincoln” is a cinematic documentary, which to him means a marriage of the film and documentary genres. Although there are liberties to be taken with this type of project, the expertise of Kearns Goodwin and other historians involved, archival photographs, recordings and available artifacts have played a huge role in shaping the scenario. As Sirulnick said, “Combining all of these tools if you want to tell this epic story and this very personal story is what we like to bring to them and we think it’s a really wonderful new format that lines up very good with what Doris has been doing for so many years, for decades, in her writing, putting you in there and making you understand what it would have been like to be in those times.”
Graham Sibley, who portrays Abraham Lincoln in the film, characterized Kearns Goodwin’s retelling of Lincoln’s story as striking “the best of both worlds”. He explained, “What’s exciting about this format is that you can emotionally connect to a narrative in a very traditional storytelling format, and then you also get these objective facts…I think that’s an added benefit of telling such a massive story.”
“Abraham Lincoln” airs this Sunday on the History Channel.