Benjamin Franklin is an excellent made-for TV documentary that brings the famous inventor, publisher, statesman and all around good fellow into focus.
Originally shown on PBS in 2002 its length is 210 minutes and is told in three parts:
The first section is title, Let the Experiment be Made (1706-1753), [55.07 min] and covers Ben Franklin's childhood up through his early adulthood when he began to make scientific discoveries. It also deals a lot with his publishing of the Poor Richard's Almanac, his writing for newspapers and his work in starting Voluntary Associations in Philadelphia, which had an impact on American history by having citizens being to take responsibility for their neighborhoods. It also laid the groundwork for Franklin's abilities to become a negotiator and a respected statesman.
The second part is titled: The Making of a Revolutionary (1755-1776) [54:34 min] and deals with his middle-aged years when he and his son went to England to live for a long while. Franklin loved England and felt honored to have America be a colony to the King. But when word came about of the colonies protesting taxes Franklin began to question the system set up by England. After a time he found himself in opposition to England and eventually to his own son who has become a Royal Governor of New Jersey. This became the lowest point in his life – but one that shaped his later years.
The last section is titled: The Chess Master (1776-1790) [1hr 31min] and deals with Franklin's travels to France where as an elderly man he attempts to garner financial and military support from the French. While there he becomes a real celebrity with his coonskin cap and his natural demeanor in the court of King Louis XIV and his ilk. He even earns a reputation as a 'ladies man' much to the chagrin of some of the other American statesmen [like John Adams] who come over to work with him to get France's support.
Directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer the documentary is very informative, quite entertaining and engaging from start to finish. The structure of the documentary goes in chronological order of Franklin's life, is narrated by Colm Fiore and mixes interviews along with artifacts and recreated scenes.
Historical information, anecdotes, stories and some speculation about Benjamin Franklin is given throughout the 210 minute running time by over 30 scholars, historians and professors. There are also a good number of recreated scenes from the period that are tastefully done to show us the look and mood of the time period. Best of all they are done without any dramatics or acting. And like all good historical documentaries there are dozens of artifacts that use many paintings and drawings of Franklin as well as images of his inventions, papers, drawings and objects that relate to what is being discussed.
The main actor to play Franklin is Richard Eastor. He appears every so often, seated and looking composed spouting Franklin's words of humor and wisdom. Eastor doesn't really look much like the Franklin that is in the paintings and his presence seems a little less congenial than we are led to believe Franklin was. However, his delivery of Franklin's words is excellent. There are a good many other actors too who speak the words from actual letters and documents written to and about Franklin. This works much better than just a simple voice-over because the actors just don't read the lines. Instead they use a natural delivery that makes the letters less stuffy and more real.
Since the documentary is in three sections the DVD makes for good viewing over three days or nights.
The DVD is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio but has not been enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The documentary was shot on film and the image transfer looks good. Most all shots are in dark interiors and many of the colors and look of the film are warm earth tones, which fit the look of the period well.
Audio is in English stereo. The documentary is mostly voice-over narration and actors speaking to the camera. There is some good source music used to set the tone of each sequence and the recreated scenes have an authentic sound design. The sound is not spectacular by any stretch but it is well above average and serves its purpose.
There are two extras. The first is Program Outtakes, which are ten short anecdotal or historical scenes most of which are Eastor quoting lines from Franklin's books. They add a bit more of his wisdom and humor to the documentary. Next is The Making of Benjamin Franklin - a three minute forty second teaser that features short interviews with the directors and some of the crew who mainly talk about how they recreated some of the period scenes. In this section we learn that many of the exterior New England scenes were shot in Lithuania.
Benjamin Franklin is an informative, engaging and entertaining documentary about one of the great historical figures in American History. At 210 minutes it packs in plenty and is very suitable for viewing over a few nights. It is also quite good to be used in schools and should be available in all libraries. Even if you know a thing or two about Ben Franklin this documentary is worth a look. The DVD adds little that wasn't in the PBS series but it is still highly recommended.