Review: ‘Lincoln’s Dilemma,’ Bringing History to Life, For Good Reasons

What do we really know about Abraham Lincoln? 

(Picture above: depiction of Abraham Lincoln as featured in Lincoln’s Dilemma on Apple TV+.)

The 16th President of the United States has been widely hailed, widely vilified, and widely misunderstood. His role in history is assured, though what role, exactly, is yet to be determined, even more than 150 years after his death. 

The four-episode mini-series Lincoln’s Dilemma endeavors to provide a comprehensive overview of Abraham Lincoln’s four years as U.S. President, and largely  succeeds, with brisk and pointed insights drawn from deep considerations by a range of historians, mostly. Directors Jacqueline Olive (episodes 1 and 4) and Barak Goodman (episodes 2 and 3) tell a story that is consistently compelling, even if you think you know it already. 

Scripted by Barak Goodman, based on David S. Reynolds’ book Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, the documentary series initially touches on why it’s still relevant to plunge once more into the subject, ably summarizing events that led up to his presidency, both from his own personal history as well as key events in the history of the nation that point to the long-established roots of slavery. 

Revolving around pointed ‘talking head’ interviews as it is, Lincoln’s Dilemma moves at a steady pace that is never too quick, by which I mean that it allows time to think about what has just been said. Letters, speeches, and book excerpts are read by a talented cast of voice actors, including Bill Camp as Lincoln and Leslie Odom, Jr. as Frederick Douglass, who are more invested in bringing meaning to what they are reading and bringing the writers to life. 

Briefly utilizing animation to dramatize events from time to time, along with a copious supply of well-chose archival photographs, allows the viewer to put a face to the people cited, when appropriate. Every element is woven together with deep care and respect for Lincoln and his legacy, while still allowing plenty of space for a measured view of the man, his accomplishments, and his shortcomings. 

It’s a lot to take in, yet it never felt like I was living in a history textbook. I learned things I had never heard before, and was reminded of things I learned decades ago. 

Lincoln’s Dilemma brings history to life, raising new points for discussion, and suggesting why so many people in this nation are still not united over the basic fundamental rights that all people should enjoy.  

All four parts of the documentary series premiere globally on Friday, February 18 on Apple TV+.