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10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America (2006)

The resulting crazy quilt of content adds an extra layer to the overall argument about the power of a single incident to inexplicably change the course of events.

10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America

Director: Various
Distributor: The History Channel
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: A&E Television Networks
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2006-04-10
UK DVD Release Date: 2006-04-10

They say that history never repeats. Sadly, we know that's not true. There is a cyclical nature to the past that truly enjoys replicating itself, poisoning individuals with the predetermined desire to emulate their elders. Such a view of our heritage appears antithetical to our concepts of progress and productivity. If we are always going to duplicate our mistakes and travel down similarly perilous paths, what's the point of pursuing the future in the first place? Apparently, we are only going to crash into ourselves coming back the other way around, so there is no need for perspective, or optimism?

Not so, according to the History Channel's amazing documentary series 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America (now out on DVD). You see, one of the other maxims in relationship to history is the precept that single events can sometimes lead to massive philosophical, political, or ideological change. We may not see the shift immediately - as when The Homestead Strike and its bloody aftermath undermined the establishment of Unions in America – but on those rare occasions where foreshadowing highlights human fallibility (the Scopes Trial, the Civil Rights Movement in 1964) the conclusions are concrete and very, very clear.

Approach is essential, then. How the narrative is painted, and in return, how the pieces fall into place both during and after the event are crucial to making the connection between incident and import. Thankfully, this stellar documentary series decided to focus on 10 specific moments, and give 10 equally divergent filmmakers a chance to bring them to life. Some chose the standard motion picture concepts; reenactment, carefully clipped together stock footage. While others used artistry (animation, 3-D computerized collage) to underscore the subject's significance. The resulting crazy quilt of content adds an extra layer to the overall argument about the power of a single incident to inexplicably change the course of events.

Such a subjective approach can be a hard sell for even the most articulate of scholars. Proving that the assassination of a well loved President would lead to untold social progress may seem like sentimental sacrilege. Indeed, when famed documentary director Joe Berlinger looks back at the death of President McKinley at the 1901 World's Fair, the links are logistically unimpressive - at least, at first. As diffident talking heads sit back, supporting their own self-subscribed truisms about the killings - and the angry anarchist who pulled the trigger - we wonder when the intellectual silver lining will arrive. Then the formative figure of Vice President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt takes center stage, and the correlation is complete. In his passing, McKinley represented the literal death of the old guard. Roosevelt was youth incarnate; a young man ready to steer a still young nation toward a more open, ambitious realm.

It's at these times when the signals of significance sound off inside your mind that 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America works wonders. When the Ken Burns'-like look at "Antietam" (Episode 4) can provide as much depth as an installment of the stellar Civil War, when a cultural icon like Elvis can be given importance beyond his hip-swiveling sexuality ("When America Was Rocked" – Episode 9) you're dealing with masterful media manipulation. Each hour long documentary is a clear representation of such thesis oriented theatrics, a backward, glancing play on perception that takes the broader picture, explains its message and its meaning, and then boils it down to a single significant event.

Take the third installment revolving around the Gold Rush. At first, we think we are about to see a detailed dissection of how greed and the desire for wealth lead folks West – and that's exactly what directors Jeffrey Freidman and Rob Esptein deliver. Then, the narrative takes a turn, leaving the personal and entering the pragmatic. Soon, the notion of necessary infrastructure – towns and government, control of the environment and ease of transportation – become the focus. By the end, when our illustrated individuals return home, broke and beaten down, the importance of the Gold Rush is retrofitted into the birth of America as a national whole. No longer separated by mountains and motives, the East and West merged when California offered its promise of untold riches.

It's the same story with the last episode here, the incredibly moving "Freedom Summer". The saga of three civil rights workers murdered by the Klu Klux Klan had its own internal interest at the time. It focused attention on the still simmering rage felt by Southerners stunned by the defeat of the Confederacy 100 years before. But beyond the racial component, filmmaker Marco Williams uses the killing as a quintessential moment in the mentality of America. When it was minorities dying for their self-appointed sense of rights, the majority could simply sit back and let the disenfranchised bleed. But when "agitators" from the North end up a pile of broken bodies, the iconography is explosive. Two races, coming together for change and dying in the process makes for a wonderful contrast to good ol' boys in flowing white sheets. Again, a single incident has come to summarize an entire struggle, and the eventual movement toward some manner of human harmony.

At it's best, 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America is obsessively absorbing. Many of the events highlighted will be unknown, even to the most knowledgeable history buff. And on occasion, the filmmaking can fail the subject matter. For all its attempted realism and recreation, the Pequot War at the center of the "Massacre at Mystic" looks like a trip to Colonial Williamsburg gone horribly wrong. Similarly, Bill Plympton's simplistic animation style renders parts of R. J. Cutler's otherwise stellar look at "Shay's Rebellion" as low grade Schoolhouse Rock. But these are minor quibbles in a series that stands to correct the perception of history as an unswerving loop of lamentable choices and practically predetermined replication.

Indeed, when viewed in this manner, history becomes a potent preamble to the eventual truth left behind as our legacy as human beings. A show of force against Andrew Carneige's iron-fisted steel plants may have been put down in one of the most divided contests between man and management ever staged. But the defeat of the Union didn't mean the end of organized labor in America. Instead, it became a symbol for something more substantive – the knowledge of capitalism's desire to downplay the person while highlighting the profit. This depressing dynamic is still at play a century later, even with all the advances made by workers. No, the real legacy of Homestead is in the bottom line approach to US business, a telling testament in an era overrun by Enrons and Tycos.

Even the single most significant story here starts out small; Albert Einstein suggests, in a letter, that the United States government apply his physics principles on atomic "energy" toward the development of an unimaginable weapon. In the thinker's well-meaning mind, such a deterrent would lead the world away from war. Of course, the opposite occurred, bringing us ever closer to the nuclear annihilation Einstein hoped to avoid. That, of course, is the main lesson to be learned from 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. History may indeed never repeat. If it does, however, we soon see that there is usually an event that will come along and break the cycle. Unfortunately, the new passageway provided can be just as precarious as the one that came before – perhaps even more so. That's the natural course of events. That, in a nutshell, is history.


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