Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky nominates the founding of DVD Verdict as the subject of any future documentaries in this series. And by the way, he is available to host—cheap.
"The very idea of doing a series about ten days that changed America and not picking the ten most obvious days has created a compelling group of shows."—Joe Berlinger
When I hear the clunky title 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America, I cannot help but recall John Reed's history of the Russian Revolution, 10 Days That Shook the World. It is probably deliberate on the part of the producers. The conceit of the series is to focus on events that, in their time, may not have been considered crucial, but in retrospect are clearly pivotal. Pivotal in the sense that the American experience changed dramatically from each of these moments forward. Pivotal in that they, as the title promises, changed America.
10 days. 10 documentaries. Let's take a look at each.
• "Massacre at Mystic" (May 26, 1637): This is, right up front, an intriguing choice for a first episode. Rather than take the expected path and begin with the Revolutionary War, History Channel and director James Moll (Oscar winner for The Last Days) marks the turning point for early European colonization with the brutal slaughter of the native Amerindians in Connecticut. Known to historians as the Pequot War, this disastrous turn of events shows in a microcosm the pattern of European/Indian relations: initially promising contacts shift quickly toward competition, biological warfare (smallpox in this case), and outright destruction and murder, often following the pretext of Christian righteousness. In this case, local Puritan settlers saw the heathen natives as a threat, and the Pequots were the dominant tribe in the area. So the Puritans teamed up with disaffected neighboring tribes (who didn't know that the whites planned to totally massacre the women and children too) to ambush the Pequots. Thus began two-and-a-half centuries of almost constant armed warfare against America's native population.
• "Shays' Rebellion: America's First Civil War" (January 25, 1787): When does a revolution end? America found out less than four years after the British were defeated at Yorktown, when the post-Revolutionary turmoil turned to outright rebellion. A new nation on the verge of collapse, a government (under the Articles of Confederation) unable to actually govern, and an attempted coup by an army of debt-ridden farmers in Boston—the result forced George Washington to come out of retirement to parlay his status as an American icon into political power in order to stabilize the newly united states. It also led to the Constitution, which gave the government the power to maintain an army in order to prevent rebellions like Daniel Shays'. This episode, directed by R.J. Cutler (creator of the Emmy-winning American High), avoids the traditional live-action reenactments in favor of jittery and moody animation from cult favorite Bill Plympton.
• "Gold Rush" (January 24, 1848): Colonization is usually a gradual process, a slow movement into a territory. But periodically, cultural expansion picks up rapid speed. All too often, the reason is gold. Just as the promise of gold spurred Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion in Latin America in the previous few centuries, the California Gold Rush pushed the borders of America rapidly, becoming one of the formative events of our nation. Directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein (the Oscar-winning Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt) follow folk historians who recreate the westward journey and the lives of the settlers while academic historians tell us stories of the arduous emigration. If all you know about the Gold Rush comes from Charlie Chaplin eating shoes or the "Miner Forty-Niner" chasing Scooby Doo, you will learn the truth about the creation of California, the genesis of our war against Mexico, the growth of railroads and Chinese immigration, and the origins of the Latino immigration issue that fills today's headlines.
• "Antietam" (September 17, 1862): It was the decisive moment of the Civil War, and the bloodiest battle in American history. The costly Union victory finally earned the controversial war popular support in the North, began the downward spiral of the Confederacy, and gave Lincoln moral authority to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. And it hinged on what one historian calls "the greatest security leak in American history:" the accidental discovery of General Lee's battle plan lying abandoned under a tree. Director Michael Epstein (who made the marvelous American Experience episode "The Battle Over Citizen Kane," which earned both Emmy and Oscar nominations) cleverly turns archival photos into dynamic, three-dimensional recreations of the period.
• "The Homestead Strike" (July 6, 1892): Just outside of Pittsburgh is a small town called Homestead, site of a steel mill owned by Andrew Carnegie at the end of the 19th century. It was also the site of an explosive episode in American labor history: steel workers, the backbone of industrial expansion, battled an army of Pinkerton strikebreakers. Rory Kennedy (daughter of Robert Kennedy) is the first director in this series to be able to use archival film footage (along with modern recreations) to show us the hellish factory world of Gilded Age Pittsburgh. But I find this episode rather a stretch as a turning point in labor relations. The Haymarket Square Riot panicked the nation for at least a generation (at least until the Sacco-Vanzetti case brought Americans' fear of anarchists to a grotesque apotheosis), and there were equally bloody strikes ranging the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 to the Ludlow Massacre of 1913. Worse, the strike fell apart and gained no notable concessions.
• "Murder at the Fair: The Assassination of President William McKinley" (September 6, 1901): Speaking of anarchists, consider the case of Leon Czolgosz, a looney and wannabe rebel distrusted and rejected by actual anarchists like Emma Goldman. He put two bullets into pro-business president "Wobbly Willie" McKinley at the the 1901 Pan-American Exposition (which celebrated white capitalist progress and imperialism), leaving the progressive Teddy Roosevelt (who had only been vice-president a few months—and only got the job because his political opponents thought it would marginalize him) in charge of the country. Director (and series producer) Joe Berlinger (Gray Matter, Brother's Keeper) provides well-staged recreations and lively experts like Sarah Vowell (author of Assassination Vacation and voice of Violet in The Incredibles) to give the story a dark sense of humor.
• "Scopes: The Battle for America's Soul" (July 21, 1925): Inherit the Wind was only half the story. Traditional values clashed with the new age of mass media, science, and widespread public education in the little town of Dayton, Tennessee (who actually talked John Scopes into breaking the law as a publicity stunt). Technically, Scopes lost the famous "Monkey Trial," at the cost of a $100 fine, but the damage was done, as ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow made a monkey out of William Jennings Bryan and his dogmatic ignorance. Co-director Kate Davis explored Southern culture earlier in Southern Comfort and as editor on Sherman's March. Here, she and co-director David Heilbroner incorporate period newsreel footage and balance the argument by showing how Darwinism has been misused by those trying to justify imperialism and social control. If you doubt the impact of the Scopes trial on American culture, just look at the current debate regarding the dubious non-theory known as "intelligent design." Some people still cannot accept evolution, even though the evidence in Scopes' favor is even stronger today than it was over eighty years ago.
• "Einstein's Letter" (July 16, 1939): The atomic bomb was the central icon of world political discourse for half a century. And the creation and first use of that bomb was the result of a letter written by two Hungarian physicists and signed by an Austrian physicist who was already known throughout America as the greatest genius of the age. It was the ultimate case of theoretical science becoming applied science: Einstein's matter-energy equivalence formula as the root of the most apocalyptic weapon the human mind could imagine. It was inevitable that the weapon would come, but it was not, in 1939, certain who would invent the atomic bomb first, America or Nazi Germany. As director Barak Goodman (Emmy winner for Scottsboro: An American Tragedy) shows, Einstein's letter to the government was just the beginning, as the bulk of the episode follows the drama of the Manhattan Project.
• "When America Was Rocked" (September 9, 1956): Not every episode of 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America is fraught with the solemnity of creating the atomic bomb. How about the cultural bomb that was Elvis Presley, particularly his groundbreaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show? Director Bruce Sinofsky (Joe Berlinger's frequent co-director on films like Brother's Keeper and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) brings forth pop culture experts and music industry insiders to argue that Elvis marked a sense of anxiety and resistance—sexual and racial—in the midst of the '50s public image of suburban complacency. They tie the Elvis explosion into America's racial divide, including the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, as well as the juvenile delinquency "menace" and media-driven consumerism.
• "Freedom Summer" (June 21, 1964): The racial anxiety that tied into the Elvis story in the last episode explodes during the Civil Rights movement a decade later. The central case here, according to director Marco Williams (who explored black/white tensions in Two Towns of Jasper), is the murder of three young men in Mississippi who were trying to sign up the poverty-stricken, local black population to vote. They were not the first to die at the hands of the white-hooded scumbags who dominated the Jim Crow South, nor would they be the last. But two of the murder victims were white, a fact that drew national attention to the issue. As with the battle of Antietam, the bloody aftermath of these killings turned the corner on legislative action in favor of Civil Rights: their notoriety pushed Lyndon Johnson into signing the Voting Rights Act a year later.
While the series ends on a grim note, with the sense that America's racial tensions are far from resolved (indeed, it took until 2005 to finally convict the leader of the "Freedom Summer" killers), the series as a whole shows an America that has overcome so many obstacles that it is a wonder that we ever made it this far—far enough that we can all watch such an interesting series about those very twists and turns in our historical journey.
I have accused the History Channel in other reviews of turning the historical documentary toward exploitation techniques, playing up hysteria instead of information. But 10 Days is the right way to do things. History Channel hired prominent documentary filmmakers like Joe Berlinger and made inventive choices like Bill Plympton. Nearly all the filmmakers have at least one Emmy, most have Peabodys, and a few even can boast Oscars. Hell of a pedigree.
The result does not imitate the cool polish of Ken Burns and the PBS house style, nor does it use the rapid editing and shock tactics of the usual History Channel fare. Historians show multiple sides of the issues, talking over footage of relevant artifacts and dramatic recreations. But what really makes this shine is that each episode does follow through on its promise to show the consequences of each event. For example, a long section of the first episode on the Pequot War shows how the survivors fought abject poverty for generations until finally rebuilding themselves (thanks to a casino empire) into one of the wealthiest tribes in the country. From a nearly extinct tribe to a successful people with an enormous museum to forever preserve their culture. Take that, you Puritan dirtbags.
The entire series is packaged on three DVDs and includes a 30-minute featurette about the production. The featurette is basically promotional puffery, but it is amusing in that it features the fast editing and over-dramatic music that characterizes the usual History Channel fare. Still, you get to hear why each of the filmmakers chose these ten significant moments.
Not every episode is as original in its approach as, say, "Shays' Rebellion," with its use of animation. But even the more routine-looking installments, like "Einstein's Letter," which combines newsreels, recreations, and brooding narration by Campbell Scott, are solidly packed for their 46-minute running times (one hour with commercials, of course). In short, this is the sort of project that the History Channel should be doing on a regular basis. Hey, History Channel, can you find another ten moments—and ten equally strong filmmakers—and give us a follow-up series soon?
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