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Case Number 20838: Small Claims Court

Buy Jefferson at Amazon


History Channel // 2010 // 91 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // March 5th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Roman Martel was shocked this wasn't a documentary about the '70s dry cleaning king.

The Charge

Thomas Jefferson: one mixed up guy or a man forged by his time?

The Case

Thomas Jefferson is one of those figures in American history who continues to puzzle folks. We have a ton of his writings, and letters, not to mention a little declaration he wrote, and yet time and again, Jefferson's actions seem to have run contrary to his words. Was it a conspiracy to confuse future historians, or is there a way to reconcile the man and his times?

Jefferson attempts to do just that. The documentary provides us with a survey of his life in 91 minutes. Not an easy thing to do since Jefferson was a busy guy. The documentary spends quite a bit of time on his tenure as President of course, but also delves into his obsession with his ever evolving home, Monticello. It covers his friendship and correspondence with John Adams, as well as his struggles with Alexander Hamilton.

There is an attempt to provide a balanced view of the man. How could someone who wrote "all men are created equal" own a plantation with slaves? How could someone who wrote in letters that he hated political games, constantly be drawn back into politics time and again? How could a man who claimed to abhor executive power decide to become President. Indeed some of the scholars and historians interviewed here are puzzled by this. Some write Jefferson off as a master manipulator, writing one thing and acting another way as part of a huge political game. Others find him battling against the social and political world around him, trying to do what he felt was right, even if he wasn't always able to achieve his desires.

Jefferson uses a mix of interviews with scholars, location shooting at historical venues, and recreations to tell the story. The camera work around Monticello is excellent, giving you a good feel for the beautiful grounds as well the interiors packed with Jefferson's personal items. The recreations are well done, but the footage gets repeated a bit.

This documentary is a good start, but its going to leave history buffs wanting more. What's really missing here is Jefferson himself. When the show was done, I realized how little we heard from the man. With the vast amount of writing we have access to it would have been nice to hear his ideals in his own words. We could see the evolution of Jefferson from his time drafting the Declaration of Independence up to his correspondence with John Adams. In fact, I got a better sense of the man from the excellent dramatic series John Adams in which Jefferson featured prominently.

History gives this a standard release. The picture was good, with some of the location filming at Monticello and during the recreations looking top notch. The sound wasn't bad for about 45 minutes or so but then I noticed some feedback for the second half of the show. Its distracting, and hopefully just a problem with the disc I received. No extras for you.

This lack of Jefferson's words combined with the fact that portions of this feel very rushed keeps me from giving it a higher recommendation. It will work well for schools and anyone looking for a good introduction to the President, but Ken Burns gave the same topic a go back in 2004. His film clocks in at nearly three hours and it still didn't cover everything.

The Verdict

The court finds Jefferson guilty of being too complex and fascinating to be given his due in 91 minutes.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 83

Perp Profile

Studio: History Channel
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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