A Documentary a Day III: The War of 1812

(Ed: Scoring system explained here)

The War of 1812 (History Channel, 2004) **
Save yourself the time. Watch PBS instead.

If you love Baltimore, New Orleans and Washington D.C. and hate Tecumseh, Decatur, Macdonough, and Perry, then watch this film. If you think America chased off the British with two battles, then watch this film. If you think it’s important to dwell on the British raping and burning the Chesapeake coast while giving one sentence to America doing the same in Canada, then watch this film. If you think an English admiral with an axe to grind is “obsessive” while an American general with the same is just “looking for payback,” then watch this film. If you want re-enacting and computer graphics, then watch this film. If you want to learn something, watch PBS’s The War of 1812 instead.

The War of 1812 (PBS, 2011) ****
I typed the above review without ever having seen PBS’ The War of 1812. Thankfully, it was as good as I expected. Where the History Channel went focused on two battles and a handful of men, PBS tried to tell the entire story, incorporating American, British, Canadian, and Native-American History together in a fascinating examination of this weird, small, forgotten stalemate.

The most interesting part of the program is their examination of the historiography of the war. The War of 1812 looks at the myths that grew from the war and how every nation involved seemed to perceive the conflict differently. Americans, British, and Canadians all have reasons to claim victory, even if the result of the war was 4,000 KIA and a return to the status quo. The only thing everyone seems to agree upon is that Native-Americans were the primary losers. Following Tecumseh’s death, tribal nations lost massive tracts of land and would never again come together to stop America’s expansion westward.

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. Continue reading

A Documentary a Day I: 1968

(Ed: Scoring explained here)

Citizen King (PBS, 2005) ****
The United States of America has never had a stronger, clearer moral voice than Martin Luther King Jr. and probably never will. Citizen King focuses on MLK during the critical years of 1963-1968, beginning with King’s arrest in Birmingham, continuing through successes in Birmingham and Selma, failures in Albany, Georgia and Chicago, and shifting focuses on poverty and the Vietnam War, before ending with his assassination in Memphis.

MLK’s flaws are not given much attention in Citizen King. His plagiarism is not mentioned due to the time period covered and his infidelity is only mentioned in passing. However, it only seems right when these failures pale in comparison as they do to MLK’s accomplishments.

1968 with Tom Brokaw (History Channel, 2008) *
I’m not sure whether this documentary totally missed the mark or if it just put the mark in the wrong place. Continue reading