Rethinking the Role of Talking Heads in Documentaries

Like many of you I watched HISTORY’s 3-night documentary about Abraham Lincoln. The previews suggested that it would adopt the standard format for recent documentaries that includes dramatic scenes complimented by commentary from historians and other public intellectuals. I didn’t expect anything new and in the end the documentary failed to deliver anything new.

Overall, I thought the show was entertaining and informative. I suspect that some viewers will go ahead and pick up a book about Lincoln and/or the Civil War era, but with all the recent documentaries about Lincoln and the Civil War era that have aired in recent years, I have to wonder if the resources that went into this production was worth it. Is there any room for a documentary at HISTORY that isn’t focused on a dead white man, especially during Black History Month?

Did we really need another Lincoln documentary?

I always enjoy seeing my fellow historians featured as talking heads in history documentaries and this one didn’t disappoint. Their passion for the past comes through and their commentary adds depth and a certain legitimacy to the program. Unfortunately, they were often used simply to push along the narrative rather than offer points of interpretation that supplement the narrative. This has become all too common and I find it incredibly distracting to see four or five historians in quick succession with their commentary edited to complete one thought or observation.

This approach leaves the viewer with the impression that history is static and that academic historians do little more than share those stories rather than continually interpret the past. It also leaves viewers with the impression that there is no disagreement among historians about the past.

Let me be clear that I am not looking for an academic/scholarly treatment of Lincoln or any historical subject in a popular documentary, but I think there is a great deal of creative space that can and should be explored between the two. It seems to me it would be fairly easy to find a way to showcase moments in Lincoln’s life or in the Civil War, where historians have offered different interpretations and why and do so in a way that doesn’t detract from the documentary’s entertainment value.

I offer this observation in light of the new report just published by American Association for State & Local History called “Reframing History.” The report offers a framework for historians, educators, and others to help the public better understand what it means to interpret the past critically or analytically.

What did you think of the Lincoln documentary?

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14 comments… add one
  • Nathan Towne Apr 22, 2023 @ 7:05

    I didn’t see this, but I did see the show on Grant. I seldom watch these types of programs and went in with little expectation, but was really pleasantly surprised with it, overall. It was obviously very much brush strokes in terms of detail and there are, of course, things which anyone can object to, but in terms of getting basic facts right, not overly speculating, using strong material from great authors, like Tim Smith and emphasizing some central core themes, I think that it was really well done. They did a good job, as a general rule, of avoiding many topics which would require far more extensive analysis, rather than just putting up a line of argument, or restating things which have been stated many, many times, but are highly questionable and/or debated. At several points, Ta-Nehisi Coates was featured and while he may not have written as extensively on some of the covered subjects as some of the authors featured, I thought that his comments and reflections were wholly appropriate and accurate. Having Tim Smith involved probably increased the quality of the program quite a bit, as the narration did a much better job in many places of sticking to what we can really be confident about rather than just venturing off. Historian Elizabeth Samet offered a little bit of perspective on the Lost Cause which is a bit closer to how I view it in terms of its impact on American culture than much of how the modern historiography portrays it as far as that is concerned, which was cool to see, as well. The scenes at at end covering Grant as he was writing his Memoirs and his passing and also recapping his life were quite powerful, I thought. Worth checking out overall, I would say.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Apr 22, 2023 @ 7:13

      Hi Nathan,

      Just a reminder that I am no longer responding to comments on this site. All the action now is over at Substack.

  • Rob Wick Feb 23, 2022 @ 10:53


    I haven’t watched it since I don’t get cable, but I wanted to comment on the subject more broadly. I think a lot of it has to do with the venue where the documentary airs. Documentaries that are on PBS or independently made are not the same as a documentary on a for-profit channel. While PBS documentaries strive to be entertaining, I don’t think that is the main goal, whereas something on History or NatGeo falls under different circumstances.

    Back in 2006 I was invited to appear in a documentary on what was then called the National Geographic Channel on the capture of John Wilkes Booth called “The Hunt for Lincoln’s Assassin.” What prompted it? News that James Swanson’s book “Manhunt” was going to be made into a movie starring Harrison Ford as Everto n J. Conger, a civilian detective who was in charge of the unit that captured Booth (although Ford was taller than Conger by almost 1 1/2 feet and was much older then than Conger was in 1865). Anyway, the producers had already decided what approach they wanted to take. Those of us who were “talking heads” were given a copy of the script and asked to critique it. When I saw that they had left out two of the main detectives (including Lafayette Baker, head of the National Detective Police, who actually sent Conger, et al on the expedition), I protested. I wrote a two page memo explaining exactly why this was not historically accurate. They ignored it.

    I went ahead and agreed to appear since I was given a free trip to Washington to be interviewed, but when I saw the end product I was heartbroken. I had researched Conger’s life in more detail than anyone ever had before, and yet my name is forever tied to this (when I’ve done speaking appearances inevitably I will have someone who remembers it). Although about 90 percent of it was accurate, the 10 percent that wasn’t was a large portion of the truth surrounding the capture.

    I decided then and there if I was ever invited to do something like this again, I wouldn’t do it under the same circumstances. Oh, and by the way, the Harrison Ford movie was never made. The documentary didn’t have the greatest ratings either.


    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2022 @ 10:56

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and for sharing your experience. Let me be clear that I do not find fault with any of the historians interviewed for this series. Like I said, overall it was informative and entertaining. I am simply trying to imagine if there is another way to utilize historians as talking heads, even in for-profit productions. A number of the historians interviewed are good friends of mine. Their presence in this series is a testament to their commitment to public education.

      • Rob Wick Feb 23, 2022 @ 11:34


        I’m not sure that there is another way to utilize those talking heads. My view is that they are hired to give legitimacy and gravitas to the subject, but I also think that most of them have very little control (if any) over what gets on the air. In my case I was interviewed for over 3 hours and about 20 seconds of what I said appeared in the final product. Where I disagreed with the producer’s point of view it was left out. Where I agreed, it appeared.

        Also, I’m not really sure this is a question of finding fault in those who appeared. That would only happen if whatever they said was wrong or not based on solid scholarship, which in this case I’m sure it was. I know that others who have been in documentaries had the same experience I did. They agreed to participate out of their love of the subject and a desire to further the knowledge of their field. If any fault is to be found, it lies with the people responsible for putting it on the air. They have the final say.


        • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2022 @ 12:08

          I think we are talking past one another. Again, I am not blaming anyone for anything re: this documentary. The historians did what they were told to do and they did it well. No surprise there whatsoever. What I am suggesting is that there are others ways for historians to be utilized beyond simply lending their voice to the overall narrative. It looks like HBO’s “Lincoln’s Dilemma” takes a different approach in this regard.

          • Rob Wick Feb 23, 2022 @ 15:02


            I reread your posting to make sure I understood your point. While I don’t want this to get bogged down, you’ll forgive me if I read “I have to wonder if the resources that went into this production was worth it. Is there any room for a documentary at HISTORY that isn’t focused on a dead white man, especially during Black History Month? Did we really need another Lincoln documentary?” as less than a ringing endorsement of the program. Again, I accept your point about not finding fault with anyone, but I don’t think that point was exceptionally clear in your post. Again, if I misread that, my apologoies.


            • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2022 @ 15:07

              No worries. I just simply meant that it would be nice if we could apply some of these resources (financial, etc.) to a new subject. Sorry if the point of the post wasn’t sufficiently clear. It was not an attempt to criticize the historians. They followed their directions.

  • Robert Ortega Feb 23, 2022 @ 7:03

    I have only seen the first part and plan to watch the rest of it. I thought the first episode was fine, although I did not really learn anything new. Also, I was wondering if you had heard about a second Lincoln documentary series on the Apple TV + streaming service called “Lincon’s Dilemma”. Compared to the History Channel series, this documentary focuses more on Lincoln from the perspectives of African American historians. Here is a trailer:

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2022 @ 7:07

      I need to check this one out. Thanks, Robert.

  • Jim Epperson Feb 23, 2022 @ 6:20

    I saw most of it. (I missed the opening of Part 1.) It was OK, not great, made some good points, had some WTF moments. It did inspire me to watch the Daniel Day-Lewis movie again. Could have been much better. Would like to see a docudrama about Robert Smalls and his escape.

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