Judge Roman Martel didn't know they had shaky cam and electric guitars during the Revolutionary War.
"We are pioneers and trailblazers. We fight for freedom. We transform our dreams into the truth. Our struggles will become a nation."
If you told me to create a documentary series of twelve 40-minute episodes that cover American history from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 up to the present day, I'd say you were in for the Cliffs' Notes version. America: The Story of US tries to do just that.
Consisting of reenactments, computer generated graphics, interviews, and archival footage, on the surface it appears to be a typical documentary. But exploration of key events and context is muddled by numerous distracting elements. I found myself more frustrated with each passing episode. You can tell a lot of money was spent on this series, but it was spent in the wrong areas.
This show is a primer of sorts, a way to deliver information to someone with no attention span and no interest in history. It was determined that to do this you must create an action packed movie based on American history featuring enough celebrities in the hope that something will stick.
Let's start with the good points. Some of the material is really interesting and gave me a new perspective on familiar historical events. In fact, the production of the reenactments is some of the best I've seen from the History Channel. They went out of their way with the costumes, the sets, and using CG backgrounds to create scope, making the series look as dynamic as possible. Even some of the ultra modern film techniques, such as stutter editing, freeze frames, and an underscore populated by electric guitars, actually work…at times.
Unfortunately, the bad overwhelms the good. Each episode is filled with pointless repetition. You get the narrator saying "And so the forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence." Then the reenactors say, "Let's sign the Declaration of Independence." Then an interviewed celebrity says, "And the forefathers showed American spirit by signing the Declaration of Independence." Then the narrator chimes back in with "With the Declaration of Independence signed…" I'm not dumb, I caught it the first time. And you know what? Kids aren't that dumb either. This constant repetition is not only condescending, but it makes you realize how little of these 40 minutes is comprised of actual information.
And while the reenactments are well produced, the editing kills them. Seriously, everything is cut and filmed like it was a Jason Bourne movie. This is fine during battle scenes, but in the middle of the Continental Congress it's hilarious. Watch as the camera is unable to keep Samuel Adams in frame. Was it because the cameraman had a keg of his beer before going to work? They also appear to be extremely proud of their stunt work. Ever wanted to see a patriot, confederate soldier, railway worker, or Hoover damn worker go flying through the air after an explosion? Well, this is the series for you. These shots get reused so many times it makes for a great drinking game. Pass me another Sam Adams, this is a war episode!
The computer-generated graphics are a mixture of inspired and ridiculous. Some of the digital backgrounds can be pretty effective, when the camera isn't vibrating, but repetition strikes again as we get the same shots of boat hulls cruising over the camera, or endless cutaways to a map of America with railroad supply lines crossing over it. These should be used as visual aids, to give us an idea of scope, not used to fill time, or show off how good they are at making clouds of dust move around during the Dust Bowl.
If that weren't enough, the interviews are some of the worst scenes in the series. We do get actual historians, professors, and military specialists, providing some good information. But then we're saddles with celebrities, politicians, and business folk, offering up worthless opinions; some nothing more than a series of patriotic buzzwords. What is the point of trying to define American spirit, when many of these people say "I define it as the (fill in the blank) sprit of the American people." It made them sound like idiots, and made me feel like I was watching propaganda. More frustrating was finding actual interviews with facts and interesting conversation cut from the show and offered to us as extras.
American history is a fascinating topic, filled with great stories, thrilling adventures, and moments of tragedy, horror, and inspiring success. America: The Story of Us tries to capture that, but shoots itself in the foot by not believing this story is interesting enough for the modern (and I'm guessing younger) viewer. A good story is a good story; period. The material is there. I don't need Michael Douglas or P Diddy telling me what they think defines American spirit. The story should tell me that. The landmarks and artifacts should tell me that. The actual people should tell me that.
Compared to the two BBC history series I've reviewed for DVD Verdict, its pathetic. If you don't trust the source material, then maybe you shouldn't make the documentary. What we have here is a tool for substitute teachers to keep the kids quiet. Maybe in that respect, this is a success, but I don't think our country's story should be treated in such a casual fashion.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen picture looked good, so you can catch every exploding patriot on the screen. The Dolby 2.0 stereo mix was nice and clear, enabling us to hear every annoying word from pointless talking heads. The only extras were additional interviews that should have been used in place of whatever Sheryl Crow was babbling about.
Guilty for believing the story of America is not interesting enough to tell
without special effects.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Bonus Footage
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