Overview: In the years following the Civil War, ancestors of documentary filmmaker Peter Kunhardt collected a treasure trove of photographs, rare books and other artifacts relating to Abraham Lincoln. Over the decades, their descendants carried on the work, helping to preserve an essential part of America’s past. Directed by Kunhardt (HBO’s Emmy-winning JFK: IN HIS OWN WORDS) and Brian Oakes, LIVING WITH LINCOLN explores his family’s physical and emotional connection to the president, revealing a personal side of the immortal leader through a modern-day journey of discovery, obsession, depression and despair.
Narrated by Kunhardt, LIVING WITH LINCOLN chronicles how five generations of one American family have shared the “glorious burden” of collecting, preserving and documenting a vital archive relating to Abraham Lincoln. Beginning with great-grandfather Frederick Hill Meserve, Kunhardt’s family collected photographs that might have been lost forever, including now-iconic portraits used on the penny, the five- dollar bill and even the image used to create Lincoln’s likeness on Mount Rushmore.
Kunhardt sheds light on the rewards and, in some cases, pitfalls involved in helping to preserve an important part of America’s past. This treasure trove of Lincoln memorabilia, much of which has been stored in attics and basements, has brought both pride and responsibility to family members, sometimes at the expense of careers and health.
Expectations: I always thought I had interesting enough persons in my family tree, but hey, I think it would be awesome to have someone world-famous in the lineage. It would be an honor, especially someone like Abraham Lincoln. Let’s see just how honored this family is to be related to the 16th President.
Gut Reaction: This is a well done work; of course Peter Kunhardt does documentary work for a living, so it seems easy for him. But the intricacy of how the words and images are utilized pops out this story of obsession. Yes, it does seem obsessive on how the lineage of family has dedicated their time off and on through the decades to bring Lincoln into greater focus today. What has been amassed was quite extensive.
The documentary plainly yet stylishly explains their connection to the 16th President and the taxing and emotionally challenging task it took the family to carry on the work. In fact, it is more about the Kunhardt family tree and their similarities with Lincoln than it is about Honest Abe himself, but that is okay. I think those who seek it out will enjoy it.
HBO: Peter, did working with your sons affect how you approached the film?
Peter Kunhardt: We approached this film from a father and sons perspective. George is 27, Teddy is 29, and I’m 63. This film is very much about parents and their children relating to each other, going back as far as Lincoln and his sons. It’s a theme that really resonated for all of us. I’ve worked with Teddy and George for a number of years, even before they graduated from college. They produced films with me on Gloria Steinem and Richard Nixon
HBO: Would you say this was the most personal film you’ve worked on?
PK: It’s the only one that was personal for us. Personal feelings come out when you produce in general, but when the story you’re working on is actually your own story, it’s a completely new experience. It was difficult to tap into the first-person storytelling that this film required. There was a six to eight-month period when my sons were trying to convince me to be the voice of the film and narrate it, but I resisted because my documentary experience was to let the subjects speak for themselves
George Kunhardt: Teddy and I spent hours and hours digitizing home videos and photos to make this story come to life. Having a third person narrator tell the story wouldn’t have resonated the same way. We wanted it to feel authentic and any actor we would have brought it in would have made it feel one more level detached
It’s not just our father; we reached out to the descendants of all the characters in our film. For our great grandmother Dorothy, for example, we asked our father’s cousin to read her words. For Lincoln’s family and friends, we looked for the closest living descendants we could find to read their voices.
HBO: You spoke to descendants of Lincoln?
PK: They weren’t direct descendants – his lineage actually ended in the 20th century. These were descendants of the people who knew Lincoln in Springfield. A lot of those people still live in the area and were very happy to work with us.
HBO: Why is Lincoln such an indelible figure?
PK: Lincoln is endlessly fascinating to people who read about him and think about him. He was so human – so strong on one hand and weak on the other. He was a regular human being with different sides to him. Those photographs capture his different moods in that he looks different in every single one of them.
HBO: Is that something you sought to capture in the film?
PK: The film is about life and death and happiness and sadness. We dug through our ancestors’ research, and we realized that all the emotions Lincoln went through, my great-grandfather, my grandmother, myself and my sons have all gone through too. It levels the playing field for all of us – whether it’s Lincoln grappling with the Civil War or my grandmother struggling to reconcile the balance of her life and her work.
HBO: In the film, Peter refers to the Lincoln collection as a “glorious burden.” Has that burden now been relieved?
Teddy Kunhardt: The physical burden has been relieved; we’ve literally been schlepping these boxing for years and years. Now it’s going to be one of Yale’s challenges, and they have the facilities and staff to oversee it. But Lincoln is in our blood.
In Conclusion: The documentary debuted MONDAY, APRIL 13 at 9:00pm on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, exclusively on HBO. Other HBO dates include 04.16 at 6:15pm; 04.20 at 12:45pm and 04.25 at 12:15pm.) HBO2 playdates: 04.18 at 6:05am; 04.21 at 8:00pm and 04.28 at 11:00pm. If you are fascinated with Lincoln then this is worthwhile.
Next Week: The documentary feature next Monday, 04.20, is an encore presentation of GASLAND II. It is the continued examination of the detriment hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” causes to the land and to lives. The Josh Fox film beings at 5:45pm. Check out our review here. TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER debuts on 04.27 at 9:00pm and we will review it.