Review: ‘Lincoln’s Dilemma’ is must-watch Presidents’ Day viewing on Apple TV+

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Lincoln's Dilemma'

Are you looking for something educational to watch on this Presidents’ Day holiday?

Your time can’t be better spent than by watching and learning from the new four-part docuseries “Lincoln’s Dilemma” on Apple TV+, chronicling the life and impact of arguably our greatest American president, Abraham Lincoln, during the tumultuous Civil War.

Based on David S. Reynolds’ book, “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times,” filmmakers Barak Goodman and Jacqueline Olive don’t succumb to mere idol worship. They paint a warts-and-all portrait of a complex man who evolved to win a war and preserve a union, while highlighting hidden figures like covert efforts by Henry Jarvis and Harriet Tubman.

Featuring narration by Jeffrey Wright and celebrity voices like Bill Camp as Lincoln and Leslie Odom Jr. as Frederick Douglass, the series mixes archival photos, present-day news footage, immersive battlefield animation and insightful interviews with local history professors from Howard University, University of Maryland and University of Virginia.

Episode 1 opens with a bang, showing footage from the Jan. 6 insurrection of supporters of former President Donald Trump storming the U.S. Capitol to wave Confederate flags inside Union halls, a sorry scene that Lincoln gave his life to prevent. The film insists that Republicans and Democrats have switched parties, inviting viewers to look in the mirror.

Titled “The Anti-Slavery Candidate,” the first episode shows Lincoln’s humble roots as an Illinois lawyer, detailing his early stance as “anti-slavery” but not quite “abolitionist.” That term better applies to Frederick Douglass, who only backs Lincoln after he wins the nomination, then prods Lincoln toward his better angels after his election in 1860.

If you’ve never read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1863), stop what you’re doing and find a copy right now. The autobiographical account written by a former Maryland slave rocked my world in college 20 years ago. You’ll realize Douglass deserves as much credit, if not more credit, for abolishing slavery as Lincoln.

Fittingly, Episode 2 is called “So You See, the Man Moves,” describing Lincoln’s pivot toward making emancipation part of the official war mission. The Civil War was always about slavery. Apologists for the Antebellum South can claim states’ rights, but the reason states wanted autonomy was to maintain a way of life with the big business of slavery.

However, the episode shows Lincoln waiting for a Union victory before announcing his plans for emancipation. Even after winning the bloodiest day at Antietam, Lincoln smells potential traitors within his ranks and scraps Union General George McClellan, explaining, “I began to fear that he was playing false — that he didn’t want to hurt the enemy.”

Episode 3 grapples with Lincoln’s nickname as The Great Emancipator, starting with present-day footage of protests at the Emancipation Memorial on Capitol Hill. It juxtaposes why certain statues are taken down (a slave bowing beneath a white savior), while others like the Lincoln Memorial remain standing (a transformative leader preserving a union).

Either way, the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 demands that rebel states free their slaves, while recruiting Black soldiers like the Massachusetts 54th Regiment to fight for their own freedom. Political cartoons show Black officers holding Confederate soldiers at bayonet, followed by horrific backlash like the Fort Pillow massacre in Tennessee.

It all centers around the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee makes a fatal mistake. Infused with hubris after lopsided victories in Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Virginia, Lee decides to invade the north, hoping for a crushing blow in Pennsylvania, but he foolishly orders Pickett’s Charge into slaughter.

History buffs know that Union General George Meade defeated Lee at Gettysburg, but the docuseries reminds us that Meade may have intentionally let Lee escape back to Virginia instead of finishing him — and the war — right then and there. An outraged Lincoln thus replaces him with General Ulysses S. Grant, who was a western-front hero at Vicksburg.

The episode title “A New Birth of Freedom” quotes the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” concluding that, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The fourth and final episode is titled “A Sacred Effort,” which was Douglass’ review of Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds.” This episode is the most inspiring and most tragic.

On the one hand, we see Lincoln succeed in winning the Civil War (thanks to Sherman’s March) and convincing Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. In one of the docuseries’ most touching scenes, we see Lincoln ride a humble barge down a river and disembark on the shores of Virginia to greet former slaves to announce they are free.

On the other hand, we see Lincoln assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in April 1865, followed by an extended funeral train ride across the country for thousands of mourning Americans before being laid to rest back in his home state of Illinois. Tragically, he’s replaced in the White House by his Vice President Andrew Johnson, a staunch southern sympathizer.

Thus, the series ends with the failures of Reconstruction, the rise of the KKK, the violence of 1919 and the implementation of Jim Crow segregation. A dangerous revisionist history begins with Southern states building statues of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and flying Confederate flags over state capitols to intimidate Black voters.

It would be another 100 years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech; he too being assassinated in 1968. The series ends with footage of the Lincoln Memorial in the context of today’s heated politics.

“There’s an inclination to seek out Lincoln in trying times,” a historian says. “We’ve seen the accusations of elections that are not representative and all these dynamics that are extremely dangerous in a democracy. In that moment you think of the first president tasked with navigating that type of situation in the crucible of major conflict — and it’s Lincoln.”

5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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