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American Experience: The Presidents

(WGBH Boston, Public Broadcasting System; US DVD: 28 Aug 2012)

By now, most history buffs have become accustomed to the basic contours of the “historical biography” film. Languid pacing, geriatric narration, and majestic scores abound. In most, elaborate re-enactments are intercut with slow zooms in and pans across sepia photographs. We can also generally expect a coterie of middle-aged expert talking heads, and the requisite voice-acting by familiar (but not too familiar) Hollywood players as they read from diaries, letters, and official documents.


This has all become so routine that even the most successful examples of the genre can drive perilously close to self-parody. The self-seriousness, the imposingly heavy atmosphere, the somnambulant monotony of tone and mood.


And yet. When these films work, when they somehow manage to overcome the predictability of their form, they have a powerful pedagogical effect.


No, they don’t transport me to the past like a Hollywood period drama, but every once in a while they can provide the texture, the taste in the mouth, of a living history; every once in a while an historical documentary can successfully and commendably teach me something I will not easily forget. Perhaps it is the slow burn of the pacing, or the mannered and over-deliberate annunciation of the voice over, but somehow these films stick with me in a way that more contemporary shock-edited documentaries can’t. In this age of Twitter, On Demand TV and lightning fast downloads, maybe a little slow learning is the cure for what ails our addled brains?


I don’t know. But as I write this, the morning after Barack Obama won his second term in office – making this only the second time in history that there have been three consecutive two-term presidents – it seems like the right time to be thinking about history, legacy, and memory. How will Obama be remembered, how will his tenure in the oval office be recorded, discussed, decried in the years to come? His is a hated, and loved, presidency.


Yet, it’s hard to think of a president who didn’t conjure deep-seated emotions on both sides, who doesn’t even now inspire mixed feelings among partisans and history fans alike. Which is, finally, what makes this magisterial PBS series of biographies of major presidents such a worthy way to spend one’s time. Slow, methodical, richly-textured and carefully researched, these films provide a commendably objective vision of these men, their times, and their endlessly debatable performances in power.


The films in the box set (simply entitled American Experience Presents: The Presidents cover most of the leaders of the United States in the 20th century. Although there is one notable exception (no Eisenhower is more than an oversight, and must be due to some rights-related snafu since there exists a film on his life from this series) and some who-cares omissions (no McKinley, Taft, Coolidge, Hoover, Ford), what one gains from watching these 40 or so hours of film is an impressively sweeping overview of the American century from the very top down.


These men led fascinating lives, are full of surprises, and (every last one of them) will break your heart by betraying at least one of your most closely-guarded beliefs. The power of these films is to draw you in to the human drama over the course of a first hour or so before thrusting you into the political challenges that would define the man’s career.


An example: for the first third of the 2-disc study, Woodrow Wilson is constructed as a brilliant intellectual, a man of great passion and principle, a man who is both heroic and tragic. But then, in the second and third acts, the rug is pulled as we learn that he is also badly duplicitous on racial issues, and an architect of a scandalous attack on civil liberties in the war years.


No, we don’t get hagiography here, but we also do not have to suffer bland mudslinging from those who have little to say in favour of men in power. This is to the very great credit of the series.


Highlights abound, but for my money the most entertaining film in the bunch is the biography of Lyndon Johnson, perhaps the man on the list who can inspire the greatest ambivalence in our (at least my) response. The colourful liberal who dreamed up the Great Society social programs and the War on Poverty, and who signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act is, on that score, a hero to some and a villain to others. But the Vietnam War (“that bitch of a war”) destroyed both his integrity and his presidency, and no amount of wishing can make that fact not so.


This film, reveling in Johnson’s folksy charm, his outlandish proclivities (nude swimming in front of cabinet members and sitting down on a toilet while barking orders at his aides) is endlessly entertaining as a study of a true character. However, it also chronicles among the greatest tragedies one can name, and the probable moment when the culture wars that have continued to define every election cycle in the decades since (including the one that culminated last night) were fomented.


Extras are oddly few and far between for a set this expansive. For instance, while Woodrow Wilson’s discs are augmented by some 90-minutes of bonus material, Bill Clinton’s discs contain nothing at all. Most of the rest of the films contain at least a Teacher’s Guide (PDF), but this is likely of negligible value to most people.

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Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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