American Experience: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
PBS // Unrated // $24.99 // April 7, 2009
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted June 1, 2009
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The Movie:
For those of you who, like I am, are old enough to remember at least some of the horrible assassinations that rocked the American psyche in the 1960s, you'll know what a "moment in time" those incidents can be. Despite being very young (as I was), it's quickly obvious that something major, which a child's intellect can't fully fathom, has happened that has affected the entire world in a way that nothing before it has. I had to wonder about how the news spread after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as I watched this riveting American Experience episode that chronicles the disparate paths of two men--Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth--that ultimately intersected in a tragedy of global proportions.

As with most American Experience episodes, we are privy to a host of excellent talking head scholars who impart their knowledge of both subjects. Those segments are intercut with brief reenactments, mostly on the Booth side of the story, and a wealth of archival images, some of which are quite surprising. For example, I had no previous idea that Booth sat just a few people away from Lincoln at the President's second Inaugural Address and could have done his dastardly deed right then and there had he been so inclined. And though it was probably part of my elementary schooling, I had forgotten that Lincoln was killed on Good Friday, making him an easy icon for believing Christians who saw in their slain leader a Christ typos.

While the episode doesn't really get into incredible depth on either side of this tragedy (something other great PBS documentaries already have), it provides a splendid generalist overview of two haunted men. Lincoln had slowly realized that the suffering he personally was undergoing along with the nation could only be redeemed if something incredibly noble came of it, and that had to be the abolition of slavery. Booth, on the other hand, was dealing with inner demons and a probably misplaced anger mixed with a peculiar sense of righteousness that ultimately led him to believe Lincoln was the Devil incarnate, out to destroy the South at any cost. One interesting psychological tidbit dropped by the wayside in this piece is the fact that Booth's famous actor father's middle name was Brutus, and that Booth himself thought of his act as the sort of noble, patrician attempt to rid the world of a tyrant that the long ago Roman also believed.

This is a typically swift American Experience outing which may leave some viewers wanting a bit more depth on both sides of the equation. Lincoln's background is largely glossed over, perhaps because the producers thought it was so well known, and his Presidency as a whole is not really examined much, either. Booth does get a little more attention, including some really interesting jottings he made in his little journal after he had committed the murder and was on the run. That aspect of this production is one of the most visceral, giving some real insight into the increasingly delusional and despondent thinking of the man. There's also not much information, other than a quick, characterizing line or two, about the other conspirators that Booth drew into his plot. The show does make the salient point that these hapless individuals were more swayed by Booth's celebrity than by any particular political foment.

Aside from the pure terror of the act itself, there are some tangentially disturbing moments in this piece which may give younger children a momentary start. There's a brief shot of Lincoln in repose in his casket (I had no idea they let the public view the "martyr," as he was known, until the corpse actually was black and rotting from decay). There's also another, perhaps more disturbing, shot of Secretary of State William Seward taken years after the simultaneous attack on his life, which left his face horribly scarred from a knife wound. Parents might want to screen this piece first if they have particularly impressionable children.


This is a typical enhanced 1.78:1 television image that sports decent color, saturation and detail, but has occasional aliasing and moire effects on, for example, old historical etchings. Contemporary interview segments all look sharp, while a lot of the archival photographs are pretty badly damaged.

The standard stereo soundtrack is exactly what you'd expect from an outing like this--Chris Cooper's narration is front and center, and easy to hear, as are all the talking heads. The elegiac underscore is simple and effective. No subtitles are available.

A pretty good PDF file for teachers is available via DVD-ROM. I have to say, though, for $24.99, PBS really should be stepping up to the plate and giving consumers more than a less than 90 minute documentary with next to no supplementary material.

Final Thoughts:
The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln is an excellent starting place for any history student, young or old, out to learn the basics of this nation-changing act. Full of interesting tidbits, but lacking much real depth, it's certainly enough to spark interest and get anyone interested in specifics out there doing their own research. Rent It.

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