On a conceptual level, Chicago journalist-turned-filmmaker Caitlin Grogan's documentary Life as Lincoln represents a throwback to a type of project from decades prior, that has sadly and inexplicably faded from view. It recalls the kinds of low-key, deeply felt, and gently lyrical human interest stories made famous by Charles Kuralt, that put idiosyncratic Middle American lives on full display and unearthed poetic beauty within them. But Life takes that basic notion and fleshes it out, to add psychological depth that gives the biographical profiles weight and makes them feel contemporary. Therein lies the unique touch of Grogan and producer-editor Dennis Belogorsky.
The subjects in this case couldn't possibly be more offbeat: three American actors who spend the bulk of their time portraying Abraham Lincoln at such events as county fairs, parades and museum exhibits. Larry Elliott hails from Hodgenville, Kentucky, Murray Cox from Wabash, Indiana, and Lonn Pressnall from Springfield, Illinois. Just as each location has its own unique biographical significance to the 16th president's life, so each thesp has his own unique and meaningful angle on Lincoln: Elliott wants to use the character to convey old-fashioned Middle American values to U.S. children, Cox perceives the job as a social outlet and a chance to teach children the facts of history, and Pressnall - an actor and retired playwright, who steals the film - sees the ongoing role as the ultimate theatrical challenge, especially in terms of separating Lincoln the man from Lincoln the public icon.
This sort of nonfiction material, of course, could easily grow parodistic or ironic in less-sensitive hands, as it did during The Daily Show's lightly-mocking treatment of similar subjects. This is especially true when the filmmaking team heads out to a convention with thousands upon thousands of Lincoln impersonators all gathered in black stove-pipe hats and black goatees. But Grogan never once travels this route. Her maturity lies in her earnestness, and willingness to recognize that for each of these men, Lincoln isn't a gimmick - he represents a way of life. Per this notion, each of the subjects gets a full and earnest onscreen exploration.
One unusual and intriguing aspect of the film that adds a truly unsettling undercurrent involves a component of Elliott's motivation for the role, that Grogan only unearths in the final thirty minutes of the film. Larry and his wife, it seems (who plays Mary Lincoln alongside his Abe), not only use Lincoln to spread positive values to children, but for Christian evangelization as well. At one point, we even see Larry enter a classroom as Abe with a Bible under his arm and talk about Jesus.
Whatever one's personal beliefs, convictions, or feelings about mainstream Christianity, it is difficult to deny the creepiness of these events, probably because it's a case of Christian proselytizing masquerading as something secular as it targets small children. It seems sneaky, sly and duplicitous, and we wonder how in the world Elliott could manage to get away with it in secular classrooms given the separation of church and state. The film grows even more unsettling when we discover that Focus on the Family (with its ties to the Religious Right) temporarily persuaded Elliott to funnel his Lincoln money into ultrasound equipment used to dissuade young women from getting abortions - an admission that reportedly got Elliott and his wife thrown out of a Lincoln presentation at a nursing home.
Fortunately, Grogan resists jesting in these instances - she presents the Elliotts very matter-of-factly and lets us make up our own minds, probably realizing that any editorializing would weaken the impact. In this sense, Life manages to preserve its gently lyrical tone while adding elements of intrigue.
More broadly, the film demonstrates a level of astonishing structural fluidity; incorporating three Lincolns could have easily grown confusing, but the documentary never once loses coherency, as it flows effortlessly from one subject to another and back. The technical polish of the overall production, the music, and Grogan's shot choices, are uniformly top-notch.