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    THE FOUNDING OF AMERICA

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Kelsey Grammar, Aidan Quinn, Jeff Daniels
Director: Various
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Video: Color
Studio:  A&E Home Video
Features: See individual program reviews
Length: 1634 minutes total on 14 discs
Release Date: February 24, 2009

“The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more.  I am not a Virginian, but an American.”  Patrick Henry

“Indeed, I tremble for my country.  When I reflect that God is just, his justice cannot sleep forever, a revolution of the wheel of fortune and exchange of situation is among possible events.  The Almighty has no attribute which can take sides in such a contest.” Thomas Jefferson, reflecting on how history will judge the slaveholding founding fathers, including himself  

Films ***1/2

What country on earth ever had such a marvelous cast of founders? 

With all of the history classes I have taken and books I have read, I am always impressed with how a good A&E special can still teach me something completely new and unexpected.  “Founding Fathers” is an excellent introduction to the real story of how our country was founded. While Patrick Henry may have been the best orator of his day, Thomas Jefferson actually “prayed for his death” because he saw Henry as greedy and too ambitious, as well as an incompetent lawyer.  This is scathing considering they were fellow Virginians.  But it may have been sour grapes too since Jefferson was wealthy already and very ambitious and never made much money as a lawyer.  Jefferson was also a poor speaker.  Ah, even the founding fathers had bad days!

And Paul Revere never actually cried “The British are coming!” because…they were ALL still British.  But he did notify Sam Adams and John Hancock that British soldiers were on their way to arrest them.   John Adams hated Thomas Payne, author of Common Sense, even though he bought two copies of the book.

We learn quite a bit about each of the founding fathers in more or less chronological order of their appearance at the continental congress.  We learn about their human shortcomings, marriages, and accomplishments.  They are neither saints nor sinners, but they were brave and brilliant. 

Speaking of good specials based on good history books I have read, Founding Brothers is based on the outstanding Pulitzer-Prize winning book of the same name by Joseph Ellis.  It examines six specific relationships between the founders after the war is over on a more personal level:  the secret dinner that determined the site of the capital and America's financial future; Benjamin Franklin's call for an end to slavery; George Washington's farewell address to the nation; John Adams's term as president; Hamilton and Burr's famous and fatal duel, and the final reconciliation between Adams and Jefferson.

Many viewers assume that just because George Washington was unanimously chosen to be the first president that everything would go smoothly, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The ideological fissures that led to the Civil War became even more apparent with the first cabinet, and cool, calm George Washington had trouble finding his way as our first leader, much as early Christian leaders had to find ways to work together for a common cause.  Hamilton and Adams were on one side, and Jefferson and his “disciples” on the other.   While Adams became Washington’s successor, his inability to work well with others and his hatred of Hamilton led the Federalists to fall, leading to more than a decade of Jeffersonian presidents.  But the story ends on a high note, with Adams and Jefferson becoming close again years after their electoral wars ended.  This is the best portrayal of these personalities until the John Adams mini-series came to HBO.  

Washington the Warrior provides great insight into the six years Washington spent as our first military commander-in-chief, wrestling with the demons from military failures past, climaxing in the British surrender at Yorktown.  It successfully strips away his mythological image and shows us how he came to be a soldier to begin with.  The narration is similarly excellent as in the other specials but the dramatic re-enactments are better than most.  Special features include a making-of featurette. 

The Revolution is a four-disc portrayal of the state of America before, during, and after the revolution.  It repeats a great deal of information in the other specials, but is presented in a dramatic reenactment and historians presenting more information and background detail.  It attempts to marry drama with the causes of events and succeeds.  It is much longer than the other specials, and is certainly not an exemplary drama, but is perfect for viewers who need more action and faster movement, such as students in school. Special features include making-of featurette.

The Conflict Ignites overlaps some of the other specials, but does go into more detail of the very first day of the war, starting with Paul Revere’s famous ride.  The special is more pedestrian than some of the others and is good for any audience, but especially students since it focuses more on the actual events rather than just their causes or effects.  Most of it is familiar to anyone who took American History in school. 

1776 is also great for younger audiences or those who want to get more into the emotions of that year, with a sweeping symphonic soundtrack and plenty of sunset panoramas of soldiers.  Not that these are bad of course, but this predates the bestselling book of the same name by David McCollough.  It is well-done but not on the same level as the above specials, and again is excellent for younger viewers or those who have forgotten their history.  But interestingly, its opening portrait of Washington contains yet more new information about him, thus showing how much there really is to know about these amazing men, not just a bunch of dead white slaveholders as many modern historians have written them off.  They were only human, but extraordinary humans who overcame severe military and political restrictions to found the greatest republic in history.

Washington and Arnold is interesting because many of us have forgotten that Benedict Arnold began as a hero for the infant republic.  It was made in much the same vein of the 1776 special, with minimal dramatizations and plenty of good patriotic music of the era.  It is also better for younger audiences, though the excellent narration is a goldmine for information for anyone.  It goes far beyond just the two title characters, but also teaches us about Marquis de Lafayette and other players in the drama.  But the tempo is very pedestrian and is really a snoozer compared with the Founding sets above.  Some of the historians are not even American, which is hardly a crime, but seems odd in this context.

Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor is a fully drama presentation.  Kelsey Grammar of all people portrays George Washington, who considered Arnold one of his finest officers, who bravely attacked Quebec and was wounded.    Arnold was essentially one of the best if not the best generals in Continental Army, who had enemies in congress, lost his wife while he was fighting, and like so many other founding fathers had financial difficulties.  Other generals took credit for his accomplishments. He tried to resign, but General Washington would not let him.  Arnold twice saved the revolution obtained command of West Point, only to surrender it intentionally to the British and join them.  Surprisingly Grammar is very convincing as Washington, portraying him as something of a lady’s man who likes wine and does not hide the fact that he served without pay.    This disc also contains “Benedict Arnold: Triumph and Treason” episode of biography as well as cast and crew bios.    

While it is only in stereo, the orchestral soundtrack is excellent and the overall mix is excellent.

“My name will be chiseled in granite amongst the betrayers…Lucifer, Judas, and Arnold.”  I don’t know if he actually said this, but Aidan Quinn’s portrayal is very believable. 

The Crossing is also a fully dramatic presentation of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Potomac.  It is difficult to exaggerate how bad off the army really was.  Whatever image we may have of a ragged army on its last leg, well, it was even worse.  Many of them were barefoot and only had summer clothes and many of his enlistees were about to leave since their terms were expiring.  There was also no money to pay them.  Yet somehow Washington and Hamilton and their men did it.  Jeff Daniels portrays General Washington, and while he is a fine actor and does alright in the role, he does not seem to bring the gravitas required for the role.  On the other hand, the production itself is very good and quite believable. 

Ben Franklin was probably all around the most interesting of the founding fathers considering he was not ever a president.  He was world famous as a scientist and inventor, probably our first American genius.  He founded the first national newspaper, library, and even the postal service.  He published the Poor Richard’s Almanac and was an ambassador to France, a chief ally.  On the other hand, his family life was a shambles, largely because he was a sensualist.  He is the founding father who “winks” at us, enjoying life very much while still sacrificing much of his pleasure and time to help his country.  John Adams felt he was lazy and spent far too much time enjoying French pleasures, yet they loved Franklin and had no use for Adams—Adams was book smart but not shrewd.  Franklin saw life as a masquerade ball, not a political or academic exercise.  This is surely one of the best programs of the set, and shows all sides of his enigmatic personality.   This disc also has some of the best special features, “Declaration of Independence” episode of “Save our History”, a making-of featurette, timeline, anecdotes, quotes list of innovations and inventions, all of which are wildly appropriate for Dr. Franklin.

The World at War looks at the other causes and implications of the American Revolution, what it would mean for Britain.  For example, Britain held important assets in Manhattan and the Caribbean Islands, and we learn which generals lost and won, and since the other specials provide overwhelming detail of Washington’s plans, this special shows things more close-up and mostly from a more objective point of view.  It is hard to believe how lucky America really was, but British hubris and lack of allies doomed them.  And they didn’t have George Washington of course, who rode a horse literally to death up and down the lines at Monmouth, shouting orders and encouragement, seeming to stop retreats and bullets with only his presence and steely glance.  England’s Last Chance and Birth of the Republic are parts two and three of this series.    The series overall avoids the romantic music and sentimentality of some of the above discs and is more no-nonsense history especially for those who already know the outlines of our country’s founding.

Video ***1/2

Just the normal full screen television presentation but no artifacts, menus are easy to use, no graininess or other problems that we sometimes see in television DVD’s.

Audio ***1/2

Only stereo but no problems, good mixing throughout, no skipping or other problems.

Summary:

I only withheld half of one star because none of these excellent specials is quite on the level of the recent HBO John Adams epic, but the set is still a stunning collection of information about our wonderful mother America.

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