Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky once flew a kite in a thunderstorm. Not a pretty sight.
"And so, when you pick your heroes to revere, you're also picking the myth about yourself that you want to tell."—Carol Berkin, Historian
There are few characters in American history as colorful or iconic as Benjamin Franklin. Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln—these figures have become so recognizable as myth that their image overwhelms their real lives. And curiously enough, each of them worked hard to propagate those mythic identities in public.
But Benjamin Franklin was there first. He spent most of his adult life performing "Ben Franklin" for fans around the world, first through his myth-making autobiography and later through the "natural man" character he played for European audiences eager to embrace the nascent United States. Our image of the Founders of America as staid and self-controlled, all tri-corner hats and breeches, is belied by the reality of Benjamin Franklin: a young hellion, a precocious genius who tried on everything from professions to philosophies to women. And Franklin was a master of self-promotion, instrumental in creating the "American Man" as a figure of energy and industry. As one historian quips in Benjamin Franklin, the brisk and witty PBS biography of America's cleverest founding father, if Franklin were alive today, he would love to have a website.
Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin entered a world just on the cusp of the Enlightenment. His family believed in stern Calvinist determinism, but Franklin had too much energy to be contained by Puritan discipline. He taught himself to swim, studied every book he could find, and developed shockingly progressive political ideas while still a teen. These contradictory tendencies in Franklin—his ruthless Puritan work ethic and his liberal notions of personal freedom and self-determination—lie at the heart of both his prolific career in business and science and his progressive politics. They also led to a public persona, the "Poor Richard" character Franklin would play over the years, that was both practical but possessed a biting sense of humor.
"Too smart in too many areas" (as historian Carol Berkin puts it), Franklin did not invent from scratch. He was a tireless synthesizer of inefficient ideas. He would see something that did not work properly—his stove, the postal system, the colonial government—and he would sharpen it and make it work better. Today, we downplay the value of his scientific advances in understanding electricity, but in the 18th century, such amateur science made Franklin world famous, even before he stuck his nose into revolutionary politics.
Benjamin Franklin divides the great figure's life into three parts, focusing first on his youth and early fame as a natural philosopher (what they called scientists in those days). In keeping with its subject's famed gregarious charm, the documentary intersperses talking-head historians with "interviews" with Franklin and other historical figures. Yes, Benjamin Franklin (played as a young man by Dylan Baker, and an older man by Richard Easton) talks to the audience, quoting the real Franklin's actual writings. We also hear from the famous (Cotton Mather, John Adams, and others), the average folks, and Franklin's family members. I must give credit to directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyers, best known prior to this for their work on the Maysles Brothers' great documentary Grey Gardens. While this "historical interview" stuff may look like a gimmick to differentiate this PBS documentary from the Ken Burns house style, it works remarkably well here. Franklin would have loved to show off for the camera, had cameras been around in the 18th century. And the key to really understanding the wit and charisma of Franklin is to meet him, even if vicariously.
The energy that Franklin himself brings to the story keeps Benjamin Franklin going for nearly three and a half hours. Part I speeds through Franklin's pre-revolutionary career. Part II picks up with Franklin at 47, already famous through his work with electricity. Now, he embarked on a political career, first as a diplomat in the service of the Pennsylvania colony. Franklin loved England, perhaps even more than his home colony, and he even secured his son William the governorship of New Jersey as a token of his devotion to the crown. So, it came as quite a surprise to Franklin to learn that the colonies were not content with British domination. However, when the crown blamed Franklin for the colonial uprisings, the humiliation turned him into a revolutionary—at age 70. And he still had time to discover the Gulf Stream on the way home from England.
Part III follows Franklin's desperate mission to France during the Revolutionary War to negotiate aid for the collapsing colonial army. The French, enamored by Rousseau's noble savage myth, loved Franklin's "simplicity and innocence" (he even wore a fur cap to dinner parties to cultivate the image of a wild man). But Franklin's negotiations turned into what looks now like a cold war espionage story, with spies and counterplots that would make John Le Carre's head spin. If all you know about America's war for independence comes out of the patriotic rhetoric of high school history textbooks, you should at least watch Benjamin Franklin to see how global politics in the 18th century really worked.
Over the years, I have read Franklin's autobiography (often called the first true work of American literature), studied books and films about the man and his time, and generally felt I had a handle on who Franklin was. The best thing I can say about this documentary is that I came away with a new appreciation for a historical figure that I thought I already knew too much about.
I only wish this DVD release of Benjamin Franklin was not so stingy with the extras. I should be used to this by now from PBS. We get a very brief (4 minutes!) behind-the-scenes featurette that shows the production on location in Lithuania (one of the few places left that still looks like the 18th century). We also get a few minutes of extra footage of Richard Easton offering snappy comments as Ben Franklin. At least the video is in anamorphic widescreen, even if there is not much here visually to show off.
Still, the measure of any documentary is in how interesting and exciting it makes its subject. When Franklin was a young man, he wrote a mock epitaph in which he hoped that "the work shall not be lost/For it will (as he believed) appear once more/In a new and more elegant edition/Revised and corrected/by/The Author." While I certainly cannot attest to the plans of the Author Franklin was likely referring to, I can say that Benjamin Franklin is certainly a new and more elegant edition of this important American's life, and it is well worth a few moments of your time.
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