Case Number 16004: Small Claims Court


BBC Video // 2008 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // March 26th, 2009

The Charge

"This series offers a timely and gripping vision of the United States -- past and present -- facing its moment of truth."

The Case

Historian Simon Schama takes a long hard look at the current situations and crises in modern-day America through history's lens. Current problems like a looming water shortage crisis in the west, debates about immigration, the role of the church in politics, and war are set against similar crisis points in the past. Schama examines both the big names of the day (Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt) and the common folks who helped to build the country from the ground up. The series is broken into four episodes, each focusing on a specific topic and lasting about an hour.

Schama's documentary is peculiar in the sense that there's an obvious bias, but it's tempered with a historical impartiality. Schama loves America and truly believes that it is and has been a haven for freedom and intellectualism and religion, but to a point.

As a for instance, he brings up the Puritans who came to the rocky shores of Massachusetts -- a state I, apparently, stubbornly refuse to spell correctly -- to find religious freedom, and he also mentions a group of Jewish settlers who came to Rhode Island who found, for the first time, that they were considered equals and citizens. He then shows the horrible, shocking treatment other groups -- slaves and Chinese immigrants -- received.

It's a complicated portrait of a nation he reveres and loves. The high ideals and the hard workers, set against manifest destiny and notions of imperialism. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights set alongside the Chinese Exclusion Act. His message, set against the backdrop of last year's election, is one of hope. That the American people have fought against many problems, war, nature's wrath, and ignorance, and each time have risen still higher.

At times, I was just the tiniest bit bored. He tends to pick things that I feel are common knowledge, but I chalked that up to the fact that this is a BBC production. Some of it's not necessarily for American audiences, but is for our British forebears over yonder. At times, it has the flavor of a nature documentary and I half expected Marty Stouffer to come out from behind a clump of bushes and talk about grizzly bears. "The American is social by nature and subsists on grubs and berries."

It's beautifully constructed, with fantastic shots of the American landscape and the transfer lets it shine through. Of course, there are shots of poverty, droughts, and soil that's been so overfarmed it's little more than dust, and the transfer lets that shine through as well.

There are only two extras; an introduction Schama made right after the results of the last election -- he's obviously pleased as punch about the results -- and a photo gallery. Both are a bit underwhelming after the strength of the film itself.

Schama presents an America that is suffering and has perhaps fallen from grace just the tiniest bit, but The American Future isn't about the decline of American society, but a demonstration of how this country, in the past, has risen from similar problems time and again.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile
Studio: BBC Video
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

* English

Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Introduction
* Photo Gallery

* IMDb