Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On DVD: "Stealing Lincoln's Body"

The History Channel documentary Stealing Lincoln’s Body is a fascinating and detailed examination of the strange journey taken by the remains of our 16th president. It revels in minutiae, not just of the odd body-snatching scheme in the title, but the peculiar methods by which Lincoln’s body was stashed after that misadventure.

The film presumes that anyone interested enough to give it a look doesn’t need to know much about who Lincoln was and what he did, so the narrative leaps right in; we begin on April 14, 1865, the night of his assassination, and go from there. But from that point on, no detail is too small to warrant a mention. We follow Lincoln to the Peterson house across the street, where he died nine hours later; we then accompany his remains to an odd autopsy, through an early embalming process, to several funeral processions, and, after a long debate between federal and state officials and the widow Lincoln over the location of his final resting place, to the grave. In many ways, this first section is just as interesting as the intrigue that follows; the intricacies of exactly how an assassinated President’s remains were handled that time are peculiar and compelling. It is also bolstered by some amazing photographs; the filmmakers use digital technology to push in, clear up, and isolate details, all to good effect.

“He rested peacefully for only about two years,” the narration informs us, and then the plot thickened—Chicago counterfeiters and “other lower elements” worked up a scheme to steal Lincoln’s remains and hold them ransom until a fellow counterfeiter was released from prison. The plot is laid out with the attentiveness to detail of a heist picture, even though the scheme was ultimately silly; in the words of one of the interviewed historians, “This was not one of the best-laid plans.” But the entire section is well-written, a fine step-by-step reconstruction of exactly how it worked and what happened when, complete with the fine reveal of an honest-to-goodness “plot twist.”

The story is told mostly by historians, with the help of the Lincoln Tomb’s current site manager and the curator of the Lincoln Presidential Library. The primary contributor is Thomas J. Craughwell, who wrote a book that shares the documentary’s title; he’s interesting and captivating, as most of the interview subjects are. Unfortunately, many of the interviews are marred by obtrusive and tiresome push-ins that appear to be someone’s attempt to shoot talking heads stylishly.

Since the bulk of the action takes place in the latter part of the 19th century, there obviously is not a lot of archival footage to draw from; as History is wont to do, they instead use reenactments. These are a tricky business, and the low budget of those clips sometimes shows. But most are pretty skillfully done, and helped along considerably by the tense, effective score by Joel Goodman. The only other serious problem with the film is a necessary evil of a television production—because it’s built for commercial breaks, and the viewers that might be joining after one, there is frequent “catch-up” narration that repeats information we just heard. The film also utilizes some peculiar CGI effects to “animate” recreated footage of the late president from still photos; the opening text boasts that for the first time, “Lincoln walks and moves according to the historic record” (whatever the hell that means), but the resulting footage is unconvincing, reminiscent of that Sopranos episode they tried to CG Nancy Marchand into after she died.

Stealing Lincoln’s Body gets the tone just right; it respects this strange story, but also has a sense of humor about its peculiarity (“The plan had one thing going for it,” the narrator intones. “Body-snatching was not really all that illegal”). The mood is ultimately a somber one, however; the desecration and slipshod handling of Lincoln’s body were a shameful final chapter in the life of a man who died too soon.

Stealing Lincoln’s Body is a thorough, well-researched, and involving examination of an odd but interesting footnote. It is somewhat hampered by the structural and stylistic requirements of its cable TV production, but it’s still well worth picking up for a unique look at a seldom-told story.

"Stealing Lincoln's Body" is currently available on DVD.

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