I am the producer/director of a new PBS documentary on Alexander Hamilton. A sequel to our acclaimed film on George Washington, this film is the story of the "bastard brat of a Scotch peddler," in John Adams words, who went on to shape America's financial and legal system before being shot in a duel by the sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr.
Back when we started working on the film, in 2007, no one cared about finance or knew the name of the current Treasury Secretary, let alone the name of the first one. One year changed all that. After America went through a financial meltdown in 2008, the man who created our financial system and dealt with its first crisis suddenly seemed relevant. Today, in 2011, I look around and see the Arab world in revolution, one step away from having to figure out how to create stable democracies. They would do well to consult the legacy of Alexander Hamilton, who helped shape our constitution and then wrote (along with James Madison and John Jay) the definitive explanation of how it works -- The Federalist Papers. Viewers should tune in to PBS on April 11 at 10PM (check your local listings).
However, I should warn potential viewers that our goal was to make a different kind of history film. If you want the usual product, you may be disappointed. We felt there was no excuse for just doing more of the same. As we surveyed the field, we observed two major types of history storytelling on film.
The first is the Ken Burns style. His great films have spawned many made by less talented imitators. The form is simple: tell a linear narrative through interviews with prestigious historians intercut with scenics -- lots of shots of buildings or boats at sunset and slow pans on stills, all accompanied by plaintive violin music.
The second major type is more common on cable nets, such as The History Channel or Discovery. While it too has narrative interviews with famous historians, reenactments dominate the visuals. We've all seen these kinds of reenactments, which for the colonial period usually include close-ups of muskets firing, wagon wheels going through mud, and historical reenactors parading around in period costume. Sometimes you see a printer's shop at work or a blacksmith's. But, you don't hear people talking -- especially the founders themselves, who at most are seen in silhouette or at distance. This form evolved because dialogue scenes and actors are expensive and, then, you are in the docudrama, feature film zone, with viewers expecting a Hollywood level of performance and cinematography.
So, we have tried a third way for those viewers the other two styles were not reaching or those who were just bored by them. By we, I mean especially my host and writer, Richard Brookhiser, and my two other executive producers, Leo Eaton and Gina Cappo Pack, who is also my wife and business partner -- as well as our cameramen, editor, and others. We built on a style we had developed in our previous film, Rediscovering George Washington based on the critical response to that film which was most encouraging and, in particular, praised its innovative approach. In between these two films, I served as Senior Vice President of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where, among other things, I launched a History and Civics Initiative, which gave me a chance to observe what else was being produced.
In our film, we combine the story of Hamilton's life with its legacy today and modern equivalents and parallels. For example, after we tell the story of Hamilton's handling of the financial crisis in 1792, we speak to Hank Paulson, then Treasury Secretary, about how he is handling the current crisis and ask if his approach is in the Hamiltonian tradition.
Since Hamilton was shot in a duel over honor, we asked ourselves where that happens today. So, we speak to some former gang members who have all be in gunfights. One has a "Death Before Dishonor" tattoo. They have a lot to say about the Hamilton-Burr duel.
While interviews with our historians provide detailed knowledge of the events leading up to the duel, these former gang members know something quite different -- what it's like to face an opponent's fire and risk all for honor. So, ours will be the only Hamilton documentary with Larry Flynt and Rupert Murdoch, Justice Scalia and women in prison in St. Croix, former Solicitors General and the judge from the People's Court, as well as magicians, calypso singers, calligraphers, and numerous other unusual suspects, all enlisted to tell Hamilton's unusual story.
So, tune in on April 11 at 10PM. We know that is the airdate in Washington DC, New York City, Los Angeles, and most of the country, but some stations have moved it around, so please check those local listings.
Our next film is this series will be Rediscovering Thomas Jefferson, which will complete a trilogy with the Washington and Hamilton films. For Jefferson, we will highlight all his controversies and give all sides a say -- on issues like big government and taxes, exporting democracy and revolution, the separation of church and state, and race. We are currently seeking funding, so stay tuned.