For several years, PBS' American Experience series has chronicled the lives of architects, poets, social activists, film/television pioneers, and myriad innovators and personalities from diverse careers and time periods. The presidential docu-bios have been a regular stable for a few years now, and David Grubin's epic examination of Abraham and Mary Lincoln is one of the latest entries.
Grubin's 6-hour show combines historian interviews with archival photographs, and cinematographer James Callanan's artfully photographed images - objects, landscapes, sunsets, homes - compliment the somewhat lengthy but fluid narrative. The dramatic recreations never reveal faces, and function as short period 'glimpses' and visual textures.
PBS and Warner Bros present the series in its complete form - including the lengthy PBS intros and post-end credit sponsor blurbs - and the transfer is fairly sharp, although there are visible moiré patterns occurring on solid backgrounds, particularly during the interview segments. Though the box lists the series as full screen, only the main and end title sequences are 1.33:1, and the actual episodes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, most likely at 1.75:1. The Dolby 5.1 audio only kicks in during crowd, battle or thunderstorm sequences, but it's well-balanced, and often showcases Michael Bacon's effective, though thematically repetitive score.
The DVD is also unique in featuring DVS (Digital Video Service): an audio description track that combines rudimentary descriptions of key visuals between narration and interview segments for the visually impaired. There's also a selectable Audio Navigation option, announcing every highlighted text and menu page. All of the DVD menus are user-friendly and easy to flip between text pages, chapter breaks, and immediate hyperlinks to related segments within the documentary.
The extras are repeated on each disc, and feature interviews with cinematographer Callanan and director Grubin (who offers fairly bland and obvious details). There's also a multimedia "Time of the Lincolns" section, containing text and audio readings from authentic correspondences, divided into three categories: Women, Slavery & Freedom, and Soldiers (the latter which runs 11:45, and is divided into 12 chapters).
The only qualms with this set lie in the seemingly unending logos and menus that must be played through before the main menu kicks in. Some DVD-ROMS can bypass the repetitive segments, but folks with home players may have to sit through the lot three times in a row. Once we're through the standard FBI warning, viewers should be allowed to rapidly jump to the main menu, particularly with multi-disc sets.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan