Peter Kunhardt has produced a number of documentaries with similar titles — Gloria: In Her Own Words; JFK: In His Own Words; Teddy: In His Own Words; Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words — and now he’s getting to tell some of his own story in his own words. In Living With Lincoln, which Kunhardt also directed, he shares the tale of what’s basically his family business going back to the Civil War.
Through five generations, including the one that follows the filmmaker’s, the Kunhardt clan has had a devoted connection to Abraham Lincoln and his legacy. Peter Kunhardt’s great-grandfather was Frederick Hill Meserve, a Lincoln historian who was also in possession of the largest collection of photographs of the 16th president (he provided the images for the penny, $5 bill and Mount Rushmore). His grandmother, Meserve’s daughter, was Dorothy Kunhardt, who remains mostly famous for penning the multi-textured children’s book Pat the Bunny but who is also known for her own extensive research and writings on Lincoln.
The filmmaker previously made the 1992 Emmy-nominated biographical documentary miniseries Lincoln, based on a book he’d written with his father and brother, as well as the 2009 PBS documentary Looking for Lincoln and another book titled Lincoln, Life-Size, penned with his brother and son. Even Living With Lincoln continues the tradition in that Peter Kunhardt produced the feature with two of his sons, Teddy Kunhardt and George Kunhardt. It’s basically an origin story and prequel to everything the family has done, and its primary purpose seems to be for their own posterity.
Living With Lincoln is supposed to be about the family’s effort to keep and preserve all of those photos of Lincoln initially accumulated by Meserve, but really it’s about the living Kunhardts’ effort to preserve their own ancestral history. Most of the film is focused on Dorothy Kunhardt and her struggle to keep the family’s Lincoln love going through the Great Depression and in her spare time, on the side, between running the home and making a living with her interactive books for kids. Hers is an interesting story in so far as she’s an important woman, and the doc (or a doc) should truly be strictly about her.
Peter Kunhardt narrates the film quite consistently, and when he’s not talking, he gives us readings of Dorothy’s journal entries. It’s extremely talky in a way that has me questioning its reason for being told in a visual medium. Told is the key word, there, as in this is a doc that’s almost all telling, not showing. Sure, there are some great Lincoln photos on display throughout the doc, and mostly they’re essential illustrations for the history, but you can get more than just the gist of Living With Lincoln with eyes closed. In fact, the filmmaker describes most of the photos on screen enough for us to literally get the picture.
I admire the doc as a work intent on preserving a legacy of a legacy, though I don’t believe it’s of nearly as much value to viewers as to the Kunhardt family. At its thematic center is a need to carry history into each generation and onto new media, the way Dorothy Kunhardt chronicled her part of their story in diary form and now her grandson and great-grandsons have made their own take with this film. And it sometimes parallels their work in continuing the stories of Abe Lincoln and Mary Lincoln and their sons. History is not just written once; it has to travel. Living With Lincoln makes that point well.
In the category of personal documentary, though, Peter Kunhardt might have been more successful if he appeared on screen and had some more experiential material, gone all the way like Ross McElwee in his ancestral investigation, Bright Leaves. Or he could have instead attempted to tell the story of his family from a distanced point of view. He doesn’t need to be so vocally present as the authority, especially given that his sons don’t get to put their own perspective in something that’s ultimately a collective family project. But knowing the Kunhardts as much as I do after watching Living With Lincoln, they’ll get more turns to make docs or other works in their own words.
This review was originally published on April 13, 2015.