History Channel // 2010 // 552 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // September 18th, 2010
The extraordinary story of how America was invented.
The 2010 History Channel documentary America: The Story of Us is a massive undertaking: a 12-part series spanning 400 years and combining reenactments, CGI special effects, celebrity interviews and extensive voiceover (courtesy of Liev Schreiber, doing his best "narrator" voice) into one sprawling epic that attempts to tell the story of the U.S. from a new angle.
These are the episodes that make up America: The Story of Us:
Settlers in the early 1600s begin thriving thanks to tobacco farming; the Pilgrims and the Native Americans coexist and blend cultures.
The Revolutionary War is profiled.
The early American settlers head West; the Lewis and Clarke expedition; the Donner Party.
Industrialization begins; the issue of slavery begins to split the country between North and South.
* "Civil War"
The technology of the Civil War is profiled, as are the black soldiers who fought on the side of the North.
The development of the Transcontinental Railroad; the fate of the buffalo in America; Native Americans are forced from their land.
The construction of early cities, including the development of early skyscrapers.
The turn of the century sees the creation of the automobile and the assembly line; Prohibition is examined; the St. Valentine's Day massacre.
The stock market crash and the Great Depression are profiled.
The second world war leads to an economic rebuilding of the United States.
America thrives in the wake of WWII; the threat of the Cold War looms large.
The U.S. transitions into the 2000s; the attacks of September 11, 2001, are examined.
America: The Story of Us is such a mixed bag. On the one hand, every attempt has been made to keep things quick and lively and moving -- it's never bogged down or dry in the way that some history documentaries can be. Many of the reenactments are terrific, with elaborate costuming and a contemporary style that helps make history come alive for the viewer. It's an ambitious project, no doubt, and certainly strives for weight and importance. It doesn't just want to be another History Channel documentary. It wants to be an "event," as evidenced by the introduction recorded by President Barack Obama (during which he says pretty much nothing of substance; insert political joke/commentary here). And while it's a huge time commitment, it's incredibly watchable and makes what is essentially a 10-hour history lesson accessible in a way that many other documentaries haven't been able to achieve.
Ultimately, though, America: The Story of Us feels designed to be shown in junior high and high school history classes for years to come (way beyond the point where students have any idea who Donald Trump or Sheryl Crow are). It's flashy and slick and moves as quickly as possible -- perfect for the decreasing attention span of young people -- and even strives for "hipness" by including commentary from famous people, whether that choice makes any sense or not. But those same qualities are what end up kneecapping the production, not only dating it terribly but making it feel shallow and way too stylized. The heavy use of (bad) CGI becomes overkill, as do the quick camera movements and occasional stutter-cuts that belong not so much in a documentary about American history as in the next Saw movie. The "talking head" commentary, though, is the worst offense, as it turns America: The Story of Us into a VH1 special (I Love the 1600s!). I'm not saying that people like Margaret Cho and Sean Hannity and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Project Runway's Tim Gunn aren't allowed their opinions, but they aren't even really offering opinions. It's more like commentary to get us from one beat to the next, and it adds nothing but star power and the recognition of "Hey! I know that celebrity!" It's cynical, and it's a mistake. That's too bad, too, because there's a lot of good content here; I like that each episode attempts to find a new angle from which to approach some familiar material. It may not provide the holistic overview that I think it's striving for, but it
The 12-part America: The Story of Us comes to Blu-ray in a three-disc collection, with four episodes of the series appearing on each disc. The 1.78:1, 1080p image looks very good overall, with warm color, strong black levels and sharp detail throughout. The only real variance in the program comes from the different elements used (including stock footage), but that's an issue with source material and not a faulty transfer. The audio options are a whole different beast, unfortunately, and present at least one very big problem. Turning on the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, I heard a constant, low-end hum coming out of the subwoofer; it would disappear for a few seconds at a time (during some narration or a talking head segment), but instantly come back in the next "reenactment." Thinking that perhaps I had just gotten a bum copy, I did some research online and learned that, no, this appears to be a widespread problem with the disc that leaves the 5.1 track downright unlistenable. The 2.0 stereo track is considerably better in that the bass rumble is gone and everything is more audible, but the mix is problematic at times -- the constant music and sound effects are mixed louder than the narration, making it difficult to hear the important stuff. The addition of subtitles might have helped remedy this issue somewhat, but there are none.
The only extra feature included is a collection of seven deleted bits, spread out over all three discs. Each one runs somewhere between three and four minutes and goes into a bit more detail on a specific topic than the full episodes could possibly afford for the sake of time: "American Revolution," "Declaration of Independence," "George Washington," "Civil War," "Transcontinental Railroad," "The Statue of Liberty" and "Henry Ford and the Model T." The deleted sequences are all presented in 1080i.
It's impossible not to admire the ambition of America: The Story of Us; this epic (and not doubt expensive) production certainly is some kind of achievement. A lot of the ingredients present should have added up to something special, but the end result is marred by too many bad choices. Sometimes, a good story doesn't need quite so many bells and whistles. Or CGI. Or Donald Trump.
A lot to like, but not quite a success.
Review content copyright © 2010 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 552 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Scenes
* Official Site