A massive twelve part mini-series which originally aired on The History Channel earlier in 2010, America - The Story Of Us is an epic, sprawling, and remarkably interesting look at the evolution of a country and its people. Narrated by Liev Schreiber, the series brings together live reenactments, CGI graphics, interviews with experts and the opinionated (and, puzzlingly enough, a fair amount of celebrity talent), and loads of historical facts and figures to do as good a job as any series at explaining the 'American Experience' in terms that are both interesting and educational. Even those without a predisposed interest in American history will likely find themselves pulled in by the show, which manages to find balance by taking a look not only on the big picture of the country's history but also by periodically narrowing in and telling the stories of the people who helped make it so.
When the series debuted, it set records for the number of viewers who turned in. A introduction from President Barack Obama (included in the extra features) certainly helped get peoples' attention but the quality of the series, uneven as it may be at times, spoke for itself when it was nominated for multiple Emmy Awards in April of 2010.
Split up into twelve parts, each roughly an hour long, the series covers four centuries of history as follows over four Blu-ray discs:
Rebels: This introductory episode focuses on both the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements and explains the significance of and the differences between the two. We learn how tobacco played a huge role in the country's early development and how the continent of North America became important to trade routes around the world. From there, the British empire exerts its control and applies hefty taxes to a people it can't quite seem to control, which leads head first into the next episode.
Revolution: With America now starting to stand on its own two feet, the idea of paying taxes to a king an ocean away seems ludicrous to the settlers. When British redcoats are sent in to exert the King's power, a revolution erupts. The Declaration Of Independence and Constitution are drawn up, and The United States Of America is born. This episode details the war, those who won it for America, and the tactics that were employed and which eventually allowed an understaffed and undertrained group of revolutionaries to take on the biggest fighting force in the world and win.
Westward: The third episode finds the former colonies expanding their settlements to the west. Where Virginia, Massachusetts and New York were hot beds of activity, there's no a rush to take advantage of what the rest of the continent has to offer. This time around we learn about the Donner Party's unfortunate end, the impact of the steamboat on the country, and about the effects of the California Gold Rush.
Division: America has quickly grown from a new colony to an increasingly wealthy independent nation thanks to commerce, transportation and ingenuity. The Erie Canal improves shipping while cotton plantations bring in big money. The use of kept African slaves, however, deeply divides the country, with the North generally opposing the idea and the Southern states refusing to give it up. Tensions start to mount, particularly when Lincoln is elected President, which segues into the next episode quite well.
Civil War: With the debate over slavery raging, Civil War erupts, with the North using its industry and population to usurp the Southern forces. Railroads begin to play a major part in the military operations and civilian life alike, while emerging technology such as the telegram improve the speed at which cross country communication can take place.
Heartland: With railroad tracks now connecting the country like never before, the middle part of America quickly becomes its heartland. Agricultural development starts to boom and the Native Americans who were once so prominent in the early colonial days begin to be further pushed out of their lands by farmers looking to grow more and more crops. Cattle raising becomes a huge industry, creating a need for cowboys in the middle and western states.
Cities: The rise of industrialists like Andrew Carnagie and other businessmen sees a huge boom in the growth of cities around the country. New York City is the most obvious example, as its ports and transportation systems make it key, but other cities also see rapid growth spurts thanks to industry and architectural advancements. Buildings becomes stronger and taller and the Statue Of Liberty is built while immigrants from around the world begin to come to America to seek a new and better life.
Boom: With the cities expanding at a rapid pace, science and technology are doing their best to keep up. The oil boom in various states creates massive wealth while Henry Ford's assembly line makes mass produced automobiles common place where they were once available only to the wealthy. With crime on the rise and corruption becoming a problem, prohibition laws are put into place but soon backfire and lead to the rise of organized criminal organizations.
Bust: As quickly as it rises, the American stock market soon comes crashing down and with it the lives and livelihoods of many people. The first Great Depression kicks in, and scores of men are out of work. Franklin D. Roosevelt is President and signs into place a 'New Deal' as the country pulls up its boot straps and gets back on track.
WWII: With the Great Depression not quite forgotten, American industry soon booms again as American Troops get involved in the Second World War after Pearl Harbor is bombed by Japanese pilots. The economy strengthens, as does the country's resolve, as American forces join Allied forces in Europe to push back Hitler and his troops while putting a stop to Japanese military actions in the South Pacific, eventually leading to the first combat use of atomic weapons in the history of the world.
Superpower: Economic and technological innovations and advances result in America becoming a super power as both its population and its resources surge. As the country watches in awe as it sends men into space, military matters once again become a priority when post-war effects soon give way to the rise of Communism in Europe and Asia.
Millennium: This episode kicks off by looking at the Vietnam War and then taking us into the Reagan years, discussing the economy before showcasing the tragedy of the Challenger explosion. From there we learn how the attacks of September 11, 2001 forever change the American landscape as the country focuses its efforts on the War On Terror under George W. Bush.
Covering four hundred years of American history in twelve hour long episodes without missing something is an impossible task, so it should go without saying that this is essentially a 'greatest hits' package but The History Channel has done a pretty good job here. While the series is periodically more concerned with sensationalism than with taking a more scholarly approach to the facts, it does make for good 'edutainment.' The reenactments are handled well and the actors involved in them are generally well cast and believable enough in their roles, though the frequent use of CGI graphics tends to stand out. Their inclusion, however, is understandable. The budget required to build a set representing 1700's era New York City or Boston would have been massive, and since they doesn't exist anymore for location shooting, computers offer a more affordable and realistic way of transporting the viewers there.
The series features appearances by the likes of astronaut Buzz Aldrin; author David Baldacci;
politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudy Guiliani and New Gingrich;
military types like Marine Sergeant William Bodette and Colin Powell; journalists like Tom Brokaw, Sean Hannity, Brian Williams and Soledad O'Brien; musicians Sean Combs, Tony Bennett, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Ethridge, and John Legend; actors Michael Douglas, Bill Maher, Margaret Cho, and Meryl Streep among other luminaries such as Donald Trump, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, activist and religious leader Al Sharpton, and others. How much the inclusion of certain people will bother you is obviously going to depend on your tolerance for those who appear and, to a certain extent, your own political views. The emphasis on celebrities rather than historians is disheartening and does take away from the series a bit, but there's enough information to be gleamed from the various reenactments and the narration to more than make up for that even if things are frequently rushed.
There certainly are better documentaries out there that zero in on more specific aspects of American history, and you're best off looking at this series as a primer more than anything else. It doesn't get into the nitty-gritty of any one particular event the way a lot of people will want it to, but logistically, that wouldn't be possible within the allotted time span. This'll make the series easy to pick apart in some ways, but if you do look at it as a crash course rather than any sort of definitive statement, it works well. Yes, it does focus on celebrities more than historical figures and experts a little too often for its own good and yes it does gloss over aspects that some will deem important in favor of showing off a computer graphic of fancy reenactment, but it also manages to provide a great deal of information and show case this country's unique history and culture in a way that is interesting, entertaining, and frequently impressive. The end result is a series that is occasionally great, generally quite good, and then occasionally a bit off the mark. It's uneven, but it's never dull.
America: The Story Of Us looks pretty good in this collection of 1.78.1 widescreen AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfers. Not every shot is crystal clear and the CGI looks just like what it is, not quite showing the realism of better Hollywood productions but you can't fault the transfer for that. The reenactment footage looks nice and sharp, showing good detail in facial close ups and some impressive texture in the wardrobe worn by the actors. Black levels are good, though there are some spots where some compression artifacts creep into the frame along with some minor digital video noise. Except in scenes that have been toned for effect, color reproduction is nice and natural while skin tones look pretty realistic.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix on each of the three discs is fine. The narration is always clean and clear and easy to follow while the score and the various sound effects are mixed in nicely, though they do occasionally overpower the narration. This isn't the most enveloping mix you're likely to hear but rear channel activity does occasionally spread out the music and the effects quite well, building some atmosphere and some tension at times. The talking head/interview bits with the various participants also sound fine. An alternate English language DTS 2.0 Stereo mix is also included.
Aside from the aforementioned introduction from President Obama, this set also includes a few additional scenes. The bonus scenes on disc one focus on the American Revolution (3:21), the Declaration Of Independence (3:52) and President George Washington (2:21), while the bonus scenes on the second disc cover The Civil War (4:06), The Transcontinental Railroad (3:28), The Statue of Liberty (3:12) and, last but not least, Henry Ford And The Model T (3:21). Outside of those additional scenes, all of which are presented in HD, there are menus and episode selection on each disc and each episode is divided into chapters.
Imperfect by the very nature of what it sets out to document, America - The Story Of Us is nevertheless a pretty interesting series. Some will lament different aspects of it rather than enjoy the whole but overall this is a really solid look at the high points of the country's time line. Some good reenactment footage and interesting interviewees make up for the less impressive celebrity guests and occasionally quirky CGI, resulting in a presentation where the good very much outweighs the bad. The History Channel's Blu-ray collection is light on extras but it looks and sounds quite good and comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.