Fictional Look At Lincoln


April 21, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Perfect Tribute" is an imperfect movie and then some. It is a highly romanticized account of the Battle of Gettysburg with a fictional chapter of history on Abraham Lincoln thrown in for good measure.

The two-hour drama, which airs at 9 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), is based on what the producers call a "classic" short story. The 1905 story of the same name may be classic, but this film is history turned into goo -- something television does all too often with our national past.

The filmmakers prettify what is not and never was meant to be pretty -- war and men's animosity toward one another -- turning it into a confection they think will be sweet enough for Sunday night family tastes. If you liked what "Hogan's Heroes" did to the reality of World War II, you will probably want to tape "The Perfect Tribute."

For anyone who saw Ken Burns' PBS documentary, "The Civil War," though, this candy apple of sentiment and false reconciliation -- with Lincoln drafting the will of a dying southern soldier -- will seem vacuous and more than a little silly.

The film stars Jason Robards as Lincoln. Robards' fans will probably prefer to remember him as Ben Bradlee when they count up the real-life folks he has portrayed in films. Didn't anyone point out to the filmmakers that Lincoln was tall and gangly and Robards, well, isn't? He is shorter than most of the men he plays scenes with. Heck, he doesn't have too many inches on the actor who plays his son, Tad (Andrew Winton).

But the real crime here is the makeup. Robards' face looks like a statue's. The only thing that moves on his face is his lips.

Robards is hampered by not being able to show any facial expression because he's got what appears to be a face set in concrete. It's TV makeup, of course, designed to make him resemble Lincoln. That's accomplished, but this is the Lincoln on the back of a penny or at the memorial, not someone alive and breathing.

The drama has three main settings. There's the Atlanta home of the Blairs, a family that has a son, Carter, fighting for the South in the Battle of Gettysburg. There's the Union hospital outside of Washington where Carter is taken after being wounded. And there's the White House, with Lincoln sending wires to his generals and thinking about this little speech he has been halfheartedly asked to give at the commemoration of a battlefield cemetery.

When Carter's 13-year-old brother Ben gets a letter from Carter written from the Union hospital, the boy decides to travel to Washington and bring his brother home.

Ben makes the 600-mile journey all by himself. And this part of the movie -- Ben hitching rides on military trains and tagging along with ragtag Confederate soldiers -- has a sort of Huckleberry Finn feel to it, as the boy learns that war is not the glorious adventure he dreamed it was. Played by Lukas Haas, Ben is a believable as a youth quickly becoming a man. You can see the recognition of death cross his face. If there is anything about the movie worth keeping, it's these moments on the road to Washington.

The movie is building, of course, to a very particular time and place. But the place isn't Gettysburg, and the moment isn't Lincoln's delivery of the famous speech. All that is here, of course, but it's given short shrift.

The fictional drama has other goals in mind as it brings together the real Lincoln and the make-believe Blair brothers.

Gettysburg and history are whittled down to fit the made-for-TV budget -- or, better stated, we might just say that in television, economics is history. There are few audience shots, because it would have cost money to assemble an audience. What we get instead are tight shots of Lincoln, the podium and a few politicians. It's a letdown to anyone who has anticipated the moment. And the film rather does encourage that anticipation.

The film's emotional climax is small and intimate and fictional -- just the sort of thing TV is equipped to handle financially and logistically.

Unfortunately, history is not always small and intimate, however much studio accountants and TV producers may wish it were.

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