History Channel Premieres a 'Cinema Documentary' on Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln History Channel

With Presidents Day coming up on Monday, the History Channel is ready to present their newest documentary, "Abraham Lincoln," a three-night series based on a biographical study of the 16th president. At the TV Critics Association Winter Press Tour, network executives and the documentary's executive producers discussed the unique partnership that the network has with Pulitzer Prize Winner Doris Kearns Goodwin, a preeminent presidential historian, to develop the network's event series on presidential documentaries.  

History Channel Executive Vice President and Head of Programming Eli Lehrer noted that two years ago, the network set out 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 the leading experts on the subject." The first project the network executed in this series was "Washington," which premiered two years ago with 2.6 million viewers, becoming the number one mini-series on cable in nearly three years. And following the debut of "Abraham Lincoln" this weekend, the network plans to present a three-night documentary on Theodore Roosevelt on Memorial Day weekend. 

Kearns Goodwin, the historian who wrote the book, "Leadership: In Turbulent Times," which "Abraham Lincoln" is based on, spoke about what she believes makes the 16th president a fascinating figure to bring back to life on the screen. "I think what the series is going to be able to do is to take Lincoln when he was simply Abe. And Graham [Sibley] plays him starting at 21 years old, which is incredible, and he'll play him all the way to 56. And you see a man who's contradictory about whether he's going to go for emancipation or whether he just is going to go for union ... he's got all sorts of depression that he's suffering with his entire life, but humor is the way that he gets his resilience back," she remarked. 

Executive Producer Dave Sirulnick added that it's important for a viewer to better understand a person, in this case Abraham Lincoln, by learning and seeing his life before all of his achievements--that is, before he became president. "It's a man that you've been following, and not an icon," said Sirulnick. He continued, "And I think Graham did a beautiful job embodying that, and as a viewer, you grow with Abraham as he becomes president. And then, you've earned all of that understanding, so that when he's making these incredibly difficult decisions and weighty decisions and everything's on his shoulders, you as a viewer have an empathy for what he's going through because you've connected with him as a person." 

Sirulnick also explained that "Abraham Lincoln" is a cinema documentary, which, for him, means a marriage of cinema and documentary genres. While there are liberties that have to be taken with this kind of project, the expertise of Kearns Goodwin and other historians involved, the archival photographs, records, and artifacts available played a huge part in forming the script. As Sirulnick said, "The combination of all those tools if you will to tell this epic story and this very personal story is what we like to bring to these and we think that it is a really wonderful new format that aligns itself very well with what Doris has been doing for so many years, for decades, in her writing is putting you there and making you understand what it would've been like to be in those moments."

Graham Sibley, who portrays Abraham Lincoln in the film, characterized Kearns Goodwin's telling of Lincoln's story as hitting "the best of both worlds." He elaborated, "What is exciting about this format is that you're able to connect emotionally to a narrative in a very traditional storytelling format, and then you're also getting these objective facts ... I think it's an added benefit to telling such a massive story."

"Abraham Lincoln" premieres this Sunday on the History Channel.