US history given some dramatic re-creation
The creative forces behind “America: The Story of Us’’ have trumpeted their intention to offer every school in the nation a free DVD of this six-night, 12-hour series, and that emphasis on attracting young viewers is abundantly clear from the first episode.
This is American history served up docudrama style, with narrative velocity and visual pizzazz. What’s gained by this approach is a certain storytelling oomph. What’s lost is a certain gravitas. I suspect it’s a tradeoff that History, eager to shake off the fusty reputation it had when it was known as the History Channel, is willing to make.
The subtitle of the series, “The Story of Us,’’ sends a salutary message at a time when political polarization has raised the question of whether there is an “us’’ anymore. History will air two episodes each Sunday night starting at 9, beginning this weekend (the final two episodes will air on Monday, May 31).
Purely as dramatized history, the premiere episode of “America’’ mostly works. Titled “Rebels,’’ it covers the period from May 1610, when, as narrator Liev Schreiber notes, “shiploads of businessmen and true believers [were] crossing the Atlantic Ocean to create a new world,’’ to the first stirrings of independence a century and a half later, when that “new world’’ was struggling to coalesce into a new nation.
The re-creations of major turning points in early US history are skillfully rendered, although in setting up those turning points “America’’ is overly reliant on freeze-frame images, portentous music, and breathless formulations like: “What happens next will transform the world forever.’’
Some of the most oft-told tales of our national mythology are brought to life with you-are-there vividness. We can almost feel the fraying nerves as colonists and redcoats square off in the tense moments before the Boston Massacre; we see the sweaty toil of the settlers eking out a precarious existence in Jamestown and Plymouth; we sense the surprise of the British as the tide turns in the Battle of Lexington.
More problematic are the talking heads who periodically favor us with their wisdom in the first episode. They primarily consist not of the usual tweedy historians but rather an eclectic — and sometimes dubious — array of celebrities.
At one point, the film shifts from a scene of early Jamestown settler (and husband of Pocahontas) John Rolfe bending over his tobacco crop to that renowned scholar Donald Trump bloviating about what it takes to be successful. I’m not kidding. I wish I were.
More head-scratching moments are in store. A poignant scene of Pilgrims watching as the Mayflower sails away from Plymouth gives way, inexplicably, to the ruminations of actor Michael Douglas. Is he, perhaps, one of the one in 10 Americans whom “America’’ says trace their roots to the Mayflower? No explanation is given. Later, a tableau of the first Thanksgiving yields to the commentary of that noted peacemaker Rudy Giuliani.
To be fair, the commentators who deserve to be here — Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, Henry Louis Gates Jr. — do offer useful perspective. Powell, for instance, notes the centrality of military service to the African-American experience, observing: “African-Americans fought for the country even before it was a country.’’ The series offers a grim reminder, though, that between 1700 and 1800, roughly 250,000 Africans were seized from their homeland and transported to the colonies as slaves.
There are other reminders in “America’’ of how bleak the situation was in the early days of this country. During what was known as “the starving time,’’ a man was burned at the stake for killing, and planning to eat, his pregnant wife. Many of the early Pilgrims died within a year of their arrival.
Yet European settlers kept coming, drawn by the seemingly infinite possibilities of this new world, with its 9,000,000 square miles of wilderness, and by rumors of vast quantities of gold and silver. “The settlers expect[ed] nothing less than El Dorado,’’ Schreiber notes.
Overall, this series shapes up as a worthy undertaking. I’m looking forward to seeing future episodes, and if snazzy production values help galvanize the interest of young viewers in 400 years of US history, that’s all to the good. But I’m also hoping that along the way there will be room in “America’’ for a few more tweedy historians with something to say.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.