Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks that if Dan Brown got some money every time somebody tried to cash in on his title with something completely unrelated to The Da Vinci Code, there would be fewer silly documentaries like this one.
"To conceive an idea is noble; to execute the work is servile."—Leonardo Da Vinci
Let's get this straight. We are talking about Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By. Do not confuse it with The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown's thriller about a vast ecclesiastical conspiracy), The Da Vinci Cod (the story of a brilliantly eccentric fish), The De Milo Code (where did her arms go?), or Dave's Code (the story of a man's attempts to erase the porn links from his browser history before his girlfriend catches him). This is Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By, the thrill-packed tale of Leonardo Da Vinci's rise to power and glory.
In fact, the first few minutes of this History Channel documentary sound like an action movie trailer, Renaissance Italy through the eyes of Jerry Bruckheimer. Read along in your best breathy announcer voice:
In a time of genius and a time of war…a bastard child grows into a man!
Survivor in a land of assassins, he builds an extraordinary legend—in a place where life is cheap!
We begin with a gory assault on Constantinople in 1453. What does this have to do with Leonardo's story? Nothing, actually. But it shows us right away what sort of a documentary Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By is going to be for the next 90 minutes. When we jump ahead abruptly to 1469 to witness young Leonardo's arrival in Florence for his apprenticeship, we are warned that we have stepped into a world "on the brink of violence!"
This Leonardo Da Vinci is an ambitious hot shot right out of a Hollywood movie, with a sort of pouty arrogance and intense thoughtfulness. Watch sexy Leonardo stare intently as he plots to—well, I don't really know what he is plotting—but it apparently draws the attention of "dark forces!" (I feel obliged to add exclamation points, based on the narrator's hyperbole.) Leonardo is arrested by the secret police (on trumped-up sodomy charges, although the doc never does clarify his sexuality), and the adventure kicks into high gear.
Popes conspire; families assassinate one another; Fredo betrays his brother and must be shot out in the boat. Ok, at least some of that is true. Leonardo Da Vinci lived in a time of power-mad tyrants (the Medicis, the Sforzas, the Borgias) and military invasions. But this documentary focuses almost entirely on that stuff, painting the life of Da Vinci as a gangster epic, with Leonardo as some ambitious Henry Hill outsider rising through the ranks of various mob families by proving himself as a military engineer. Painting is apparently just a sideline to make a buck now and then.
This Leonardo is an unlikable opportunist. He fails to finish projects; he feuds with Michelangelo; he caves to his mercenary ambitions by aiding bloodthirsty bosses like Cesare Borgia. All of it is motivated by some vague "code" referred to again and again. If Leonardo looks good here at all, it is only because everyone else in Renaissance Italy was apparently—at least according to this version of the story—some sort of homicidal maniac.
While PBS still takes the high road with its history documentaries, the History Channel has carved out a niche making what I will call "the exploitation documentary." Loud, pushy, obsessed with sex and violence, and awash with melodrama—the typical History Channel doc these days tries to draw viewers by making history seem noisy and nasty. Sure, much of history is noisy and nasty, but these docs seem less concerned with telling it like it is than spinning history in terms of Hollywood clichés. In the case of Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By, we get mostly dramatic recreations of Da Vinci's life (when we stay focused on Da Vinci and don't head off for some battle footage—of which there is quite a bit), with a few talking-head historians thrown in to make this look legitimate.
This was all intentional, at least according to the making-of featurette included on this DVD. The producers were looking to tell Leonardo's story on an epic scale, which apparently to them means painting the hero as one of the Sopranos. But the result gives little actual psychological insight into Leonardo Da Vinci, and it treats his biography as the stuff of tabloid journalism. We hear about his "code" repeatedly, but the documentary never tells us what that is. Only that he is motivated by a "code," that "according to his code" he must do such and such, or that his "code" led him to this or that discovery. I suppose the idea of a "code" here is only mentioned in the script as a way to cash in on the Dan Brown marketing juggernaut. But those looking to make the connection with find nothing here about the Priory of Sion, hidden messages in the paintings, or any of that other dubious stuff. That is probably for the best. This documentary is already sensationalistic enough. Involving Da Vinci in a conspiracy, when everyone else in Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By appears already to be involved in all sorts of violent conspiracies, might transform this from a Jerry Bruckheimer story into an Oliver Stone story. Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By is too much like an overwrought movie as it is. Leonardo Da Vinci lived a fascinating life. It doesn't need help from Hollywood to make it so.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• "History in the Making" Featurette
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