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As soon as you're presented with Columbia University professor and noted historian Simon Schama-- a rather humble looking British man who launches into a mini-lecture of the history of America's power of reinvention-- admittedly, those unfamiliar with the individual will find their minds wandering.
A British expert on American history? What gives?
Yet before it starts to register, Schama answers the question. He does so in his witty yet slightly defensive special introduction which is included in this recent Warner Brothers BBC joint 2-disc release as a new update following the election of President Barack Obama to help lead into the original four episode miniseries that had initially aired across the pond.
Having lived nearly half his life in America, Schama has developed both an affinity and critical interest in what makes America tick and why he believes that its history affects every other single country around the globe. To this end, he purports to address why American history matters and why it always did by journeying into where we've been in the past to where we are today and how that should and will influence our country's power or rather it's "genius of... reinvention" for the future. He breaks it all down in the partly fascinating yet overly dry miniseries that fixates on four distinct topics including: "American Plenty," "American War," "American Fervour," and "What is an American?"
Tackling everything from our founding fathers to our imminent global warming crisis to the many wars we've fought to the religious nature of an overwhelming number of Americans to the fight over immigration-- our host and narrator does indeed at times offer us a "historical illuminations" as promised. However, and quite troublesomely despite what seemed to be his earnest hope to do the opposite-- more often than not and in stark contrast to his role as a historian or researcher, Schama's narrative and coverage seems as though it always had a road-map even before he began hitting the books (and indeed he did write a book).
For, within just precious seconds of each episode, you'll know precisely the conclusion he hopes to make in a way that even-- as a proud "die hard left-wing liberal"-- I found a bit irritating as the coverage is uneven, diving in with a "shame on you, Yanks" finger pointing subtext that rears its ugly head a bit too often for my taste. And although he tries to show how to turn things around despite defects in our past, it's the defects he relishes in with a Phillip Glass style score on the "war" episode etc. that makes the documentary seem a bit superfluous to countless projects out there already.
Moreover, often it almost appeared as though he's intending to simply provoke rather than inform or inspire in the same way his seemingly idolized President Barack Obama (who appears so often throughout the series it's as if Schama knew he'd be elected) does. And instead-- by jumping around in chronology and pulling facts together in a haphazard way-- he fixates solely on all the problems of both sides of an issue (immigration, for example) that he results in making us feel things are too desperate to resolve.
Ironically, although Michael Moore is a far more polarizing figure-- the one thing one can't accuse that documentarian of is making you feel hopeless but rather hopeful in that reminding us that change is in our hands. As, although this is a similar idea throughout Schama's work (or he wants it to be), it gets contradicted often enough that his good intentions are unfortunately lost.
While in roughly 240 minutes-- of course, he can't exactly give subjects perhaps the time and consideration he probably should in introducing a broad scope of ideas and important issues. Yet, despite this, he does hold our attention in discussing the reality that the scarcity of water is an even greater threat to America's future than oil and some fascinating information about the intellectual battle of brawn verses brains between Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain to sharing the little known history of the oldest synagogue in America.
Much like a good professor-- overall, he inspires us to want to seek out more information for ourselves on some of the gems he drops in our lap and he does manage to clue us in on some historical facts of which many of us were definitely unaware. Yet still there's something about the entire documentary's tone and Schama's constant reminder to us that we need to become "born again" (by showing how necessity has driven us in the past to find water, fight for land etc.) that seems less inquisitive and earnest than it should.
For, in lieu of the goal to promote change, it's often presented at times-- as a bit of fervent condescension as Schama grasps at facts spanning hundreds of years apart to string them together in a way which he feels provides the reason we're in as much trouble as we are and then throwing out a one-sentence "here's what you must do" before fixating once again on our "downfall."
Yes, American history matters and it has always mattered and especially now in these troubling times, change is a necessity but possibly it's because of our contemporary political and economic landscape that Schama's miniseries seems a bit like throwing salt into an open wound. And, although it may have played better at a different date-- the simpler solution would most likely have been if he'd truly stuck to his thesis and focused on the idea of inspiring change (a la the series' frequent inclusion of President Obama clips) rather than focusing on disaster.