If good intentions and a lively imagination were all that counted, the documentary Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton, which aired last night on PBS stations, would be a masterwork. Using quirky analogies and explanatory devices of the sort pioneered by Robert Krulwich on NPR many years ago, the film uses a variety of modern-day "hooks" to try to explicate Hamilton's near-operatic 49 years on earth:
- To explore the pain of the imprisonment of Hamilton's mother on the island of St. Croix in Hamilton's boyhood, narrator Richard Brookhiser conducts a constipated interview with female inmates of a St. Croix jail, generating vague embarrassment for the women asked to comment on history they do not know;
- To dramatize the battle of Yorktown in 1781, the filmmakers dress a large group of high school boys in t-shirts of blue (Continental Army) and red (British Army), having the blue team attack and vanquish the red team with inflatable bats;
- To convey the importance of lawsuits over abandoned Tory property after the Revolutionary War, they staged a (mercifully brief) mock trial before Judge Marilyn Milian of TV's The People's Court, whose insights into the 1780s legal world are elusive, at best;
- To examine Hamilton's sex scandal in the Maria Reynolds affair, the filmmakers dropped in on modern scandalmeister Larry Flynt, who has almost nothing interesting to say about Hamilton.
- For purposes that are almost entirely elusive, narrator Brookhiser role-plays Hamilton in a scene with a Talleyrand portrayed by French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy, whose untamed hair is the most interesting feature of the segment.
These are brave and potentially powerful ways to translate Hamilton's life into terms accessible to modern-day Americans, but the whole of the the film proves to be considerably smaller than the sum of its parts.
The basic problem is that the film is so focused on its own metaphorical tricks and what It all means that it loses sight of Hamilton the man. Very little of the film explores his personal story or the fascinating and pivotal relationships that defined Hamilton's impact on the fledgling nation.
Hamilton's complex oedipal connection to George Washington was the foundation of his role in history, yet the film barely mentions it until Washington's retirement and death left Hamilton so unmoored that he drove his own career directly into the ditch.
Hamilton's bitter battles with Thomas Jefferson -- and his close partnership and then bitter battles with James Madison -- are largely ignored.
His interactions with his doppelganger/rival Aaron Burr are largely reduced to an amusing but pointless conversation with four gigantic hoodlums from Baltimore who are asked to interpret the word "despicable," which triggered the Burr-Hamilton duel. That these massive gentlemen do not understand that in 1804 the term conveyed notions of sexual perversion is hardly their fault, but the filmmakers rather ungraciously set them up to make the error and entirely omit the point for viewers.
Finally, almost no air time is afforded to his marriage to Betsy Schuyler, which was another keystone to his advancement in the world, nor their eight children.
Indeed, Hamilton the person is largely jettisoned for Hamilton the avatar of the market economy triumphant. Only a few times does he emerge, mostly in the welcome comments of authors Ron Chernow and Gore Vidal, two men who have thought deeply about who Hamilton was and can effectively distill what they know. It is a shame they are not used more.
The narration by author Richard Brookhiser is often uninspiring, though his on-screen interactions are sometimes effective. He manages the re-enactment of the duel with Aaron Burr with admirable dispatch. His enthusiasm is infectious in his reaction to the bearded Baptist brethren from Pennsylvania who load Hamilton's Harlem home ("The Grange") on wheels and move it to a new location a block a way (which is great film).
Thus, Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton comes up short on its central mission, rediscovering Hamilton. It is an honorable effort, but the story of the man remains to be told on film.