The History Channel offered a capitvating documentary mini-series on the life of Ulysses S. Grantthis week. It’s still available online. We saw it advertised when watching The Last Dance and thought it would be worth checking out. I didn’t know much about Grant other than he was an important General during the Civil War and not much of a president. I’ve learned that that was an inaccurate view of a brave, intelligent man.

Grant grew up poor. His father was a tanner and both parents were staunch abolitionists. He went to West Point where he wasn’t a shining star, but he met men like Robert E. Lee and other future Civil War leaders. When he fought in the Mexican-American War, his distaste for war was solidified, but he also proved to be unique in his ability to think clearly in the heat of battle.

This documentary features several notable historians and shows the complexity of a great military strategist and a popular President who’s become forgotten through the decades. The commentary is interspersed with excellent reenactments.

Part of the reason for Grant’s tarnished reputation is that in the 1960s, Southern historians published profusely and changed the narrative reshaping Grant’s life so that he came across as a drinker who became a corrupt President.

From this documentary you learn the complexity of Ulysses S. Grant. He was an abolitionist whose father-in-law bought him a slave, a slave that he soon freed. At the time Grant was poor and couldn’t support his family, but believed in equality and though he could have made a lot of money by selling rather than freeing this man, chose to free him. Yes, Grant drank, but he also knew that was a weakness and dealt with it. He’s a man who knew failure and poverty, but overcame them. He was an honest man, a military genius, and popular President who sought to bring a divided country together.

Grant is a gripping documentary from start to finish.




What is this far off, vacant look about?

Although I can see the hard work that went into the performances in Stephen Spielberg‘s Lincoln, I can’t say I liked the film. No doubt it will win several nominations and even awards, but I was struck by how the film lumbered along and how Daniel Day Lewis‘ Lincoln seemed so detached from the people around him. I can see that Day Lewis perfected Lincoln’s walk and mannerisms, but this character seemed removed from the others and hence hard for me to connect with.

There was something quite odd about the lighting, that distracted me. I realize they didn’t have electric light so I appreciated the night scenes with rooms that weren’t as bright as ours are now. But why were the rooms with the windows open during the day so dark, while the sun poured in through the windows as if the sun were a lot closer than it is. Shouldn’t a sun lit room then be like one now? I’ve toured the White House, Lincoln’s Springfield home and other preserved homes of the 19th century and never seen such lighting. It’s as if there were more eclipses or something during this era.

The maneuverings to pass the 13th amendment freeing slaves form the plot and I can see that it’s good to have a thread that the story clings to. I guess it sort of worked, but this choice didn’t thrill me. It was okay.

A lot of good actors appear. Some of my favorites like Hal Halbrook, David Strathairn, and James Spader. They all add to the film, but still I feel something was missing.

It was strange that Daniel Day Lewis went to such pains to portray Lincoln as he really was, while the script rejected some of the historical consultant’s advice and mucked around with history. For the record, Mary Todd Lincoln did not sit in the galley to watch congress and congress didn’t vote state by state. Most historical films do add some fiction, but I don’t think these choices added anything to the drama. Also, I’m puzzled by the choice to not show the shooting in Ford’s theater, but rather to fake the audience out with a scene in another theater where Lincoln’s youngest son was watching a play.

Now I did still have jet lag, a little, when I saw this movie on Wednesday, but I’m not sure that’s the only reason I had a hard time staying awake during the second half of the film. I never fall asleep in a movie, but I did doze off twice here and had to fight to stay awake. Mind you, I can stay awake for rather esoteric fare.

I know a lot of people praise the film highly, but I left thinking something’s missing or wrong here. This film could have been better and I’d like to see a Lincoln film based on other material, not just (or mainly) on Team of Rivals, which I still need to read.