A Documentary a Day II: The American Revolution

(Ed: Scoring system explained here)

The American Revolution (History Channel, 2006) ****
The History Channel’s thirteen-part (Get it? Thirteen?) documentary series on the American Revolution is a triumph of historical storytelling. It’s a staggeringly complex, yet imminently watchable, retelling of the American struggle for self-determination and independence.

The American Revolution is organized very effectively. It does a marvelous job separating the wheat from the chaff, discussing only the most important events and concepts. Every episode focuses on a major arc or idea, usually blending political, social, and military history together to form a coherent central narrative.

The series goes far beyond the simplistic treatment that pervades discussion of our nation’s founding. Concepts are explored in depth and stories are told from multiple perspectives. Women and minorities are seamlessly included. The British are humanized. It’s not just good television; it’s good history.

That’s not to say the series is perfect. The music is disturbingly sub-par. Edward Herrmann might be a great narrator, but here his narration lacks the urgency required to emotionally involve the viewer. Having thirteen episodes is cute, but ultimately pointless if you are going to devote the final two episodes to summarizing the previous eleven.

Thankfully, the historians and contributors pick up the slack. Willard Sterne Randall always has something worthwhile to say and I want to enroll in a class taught by Major John Hall immediately. I’ll audit it, I don’t care. The guy’s brilliant.

Overall, The American Revolution is mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of the founding of our nation.

Alexander Hamilton (PBS, 2007) ***
This installment of The American Experience examines the life of Alexander Hamilton, very possibly our most overlooked “Founding Father.” Alexander Hamilton follows its titular protagonist through his tragic childhood, enlistment in the American Revolution, the writing of The Federalist Papers, and the creation of the policies that laid the groundwork for America’s economic expansion. Bookending Hamilton’s life is his fall from grace and death at the hands of Aaron Burr.

The most intriguing part of the documentary was how Hamilton’s early influences created the man he would become. That he was born in the West Indies caused him to become a nationalist. That his service in the Continental Army created a Federalist. And that his upbringing as a poor, illegitimate child forged a devotion to honor that would prove to be his undoing. It got me thinking about how my own childhood has influenced me, and not always for the better.

Although the film made some weird choices, such as having actors dress up as historical figures and speak to the camera, it does a great job explaining Hamilton’s centrality to modern America. Even though there is no “Hamilton Monument” in the United States, his greatest monument is the nation he helped create; the nation in which we live today.

Fighting for Freedom (PBS, 2003) **
Fighting for Freedom is PBS’ attempt to tell the story of the first half of American History in only 90 minutes. It begins with British taxation and works its way through the American Revolution, the creation of the US Constitution, and the Adams and Jefferson Administrations before closing with the causes and conduct of the American Civil War. PBS brings in scores of celebrities to lend their voices to a generally dull production.

Fighting for Freedom’s problem is that it goes for, and achieves, tremendous breadth. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of any semblance of depth. The film too frequently feels like it’s working its way through some checklist of traditional talking points and events in American History. Fighting for Freedom is so constrained that it sacrifices the very complexities and perspectives that make history both compelling and critically important.

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