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A&E Home Video presents

Founding Brothers (2002)

"We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists."- Thomas Jefferson (Peter Coyote)

Stars: Peter Coyote, James Woods, Brian Dennehy, Michael York, Rob Lowe, Hal Holbrook
Other Stars: Roger Mudd, Edward Herrmann, Joseph Ellis, Richard Brookhiser, Gordon S. Wood, Joanne Freeman, John Ferling, Carol Berkson, David McCullough, William Fowler, Joyce Appleby, Jack Rakove
Director: Melissa Jo Peltier, Bonnie Peterson, Jim Milio, Mark Hufnail

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 03h:03m:08s
Release Date: 2002-07-30
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B+CC D-


DVD Review

The heady days of the American Revolution brought the promise of a new beginning to the thirteen former colonies, but much of the hard work was ahead—after their improbable victory over the British, just how would the citizens of the United States govern themselves, and with what degree of success? This miniseries, produced by the History Channel and based on Joseph Ellis' book of the same name, examines the first decades of the Republic, as quite literally democracy was invented, in all its messiness, by the great figures of the period.

Disc One holds the two parts of the first half, A More Perfect Union. The narrative begins at the end of 1788, with George Washington on his way to New York for his first inauguration, and during his first administration he wasn't sure just how to handle himself—he was not a king, surely, but since this job of President was without precedent, he was keenly aware that his manner and actions would establish the template for his successors. And that turned out to be so for content, as well as form—as with many of the re-elected Presidents after him, Washington's first term was a tremendous success, but his second one was not. Politics didn't turn ugly only in our own time, as Thomas Jefferson spread scurrilous rumors about the President's weakness and senility; his surreptitious correspondence was eventually published, and has the pungency and nastiness of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Washington left office wearily after eight years, and one of the few poor choices in this documentary is a tight shot of a retreating, mounted Washington, that starts on the steed—there's almost an implication that the departing President, the father of our country, was a horse's ass.

The two episodes on Disc Two make up Evolution of a Revolution, and carry the narrative from the election of John Adams to the Presidency in 1796, through Thomas Jefferson's two terms in office, ending in early 1809. The account takes us through the formation of political parties, and poor Adams as President was forever being second guessed from all sides—Jefferson and his allies were a less-than-loyal opposition, and the allegiance of Adams' Cabinet was not to the President but to his predecessor, Washington, and to Washington's favorite, Alexander Hamilton. Adams turned to the one person he could trust for sound advice: his wife, Abigail, and she advised him wisely, but for her endorsement of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Jefferson succeeded Adams after the hotly contested election of 1800, which historian David McCullough calls "as vicious as any in our history." The narrative here emphasizes Jefferson's great successes on the public stage, most notably the Louisiana Purchase from a cash-starved Napoleon ("the best real estate deal since the Garden of Eden," opines historian Carol Berkin), without papering over the shortcomings of his later years in office. (As was the case with Washington, Jefferson's second term was as calamitous as the first one was successful.) And no small amount of attention is given to the principal irony of Jefferson's life, that the author of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves throughout his lifetime, and even fathered children with one of them, Sally Hemings.

There's coda about Adams and Jefferson, the two aging lions in winter, reaching a rapprochement through correspondence in their old age, long after both had left office. They died on the same day, July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In general, the talking head stuff is fine, and a more than respectable roster of American historians have been assembled; also anecdotally worthwhile are the readings from the letters and papers of the founding brothers by some well-known actors. Brian Dennehy is a fine and likable Washington, and Michael York stands out as a sniffy Hamilton; the weakest of the lot is Rob Lowe, who puts on an affected and unconvincing Southern accent as he reads the words of James Madison.

You can sympathize with the documentarians for wanting to show something other than historians chatting and ancient etchings, but the choice to have a second group of (unknown) actors get dolled up as the founders of our country and enact events without dialogue all looks rather silly and amateurish. The actors are given the full treatment of wigs, bonnets and waistcoats, and look like they're from a cut-rate roadshow production of 1776. And while the limits of the medium keep this from being much more than a dutiful narrative, it's a nicely crafted look at the early years of the Republic, when so much was up for grabs.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Produced for television, the series doesn't offer especially artful cinematography, though the interviews vary in picture quality. (Washington biographer Richard Brookhiser is shot particularly shoddily.) Resolution tends to be poor and little higher than video quality, but blacks are pretty true and the color level is consistent.

Image Transfer Grade: C

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The audio track is largely free of interference, but the History Channel seems to favor jacking up the bass on their narrators—hence Edward Herrmann growls out of your speakers, and much too loudly. Workmanlike audio quality here, but that's really all that's necessary.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Packaging: 2 disc slip case
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 00h:45m:53s (disc one); 00h:43

Extras Review: There are six chapters for each of the four episodes, but no extras.

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

Winning the war was one thing, building a nation quite another, and this documentary is a straightforward look at the heavy lifting and less glamorous work involved in the latter. The impressive galaxy of historians interviewed here help raise this above a perfunctory level, though the filmmakers would have done better to jettison the period re-creations.

Jon Danziger 2002-09-02