After reviewing "History's" "Instant Expert: Beowulf" and being thoroughly disgusted by a cheap repackaging of a program with minimal educational content, I actually feared for what "Instant Expert: The Story of Oil" had in store. Fortunately, I found a 90-minute program that appears to have been released a few years back under the titled "Crude," that is free of problems that plague so many of the modern attempts at educational programming. It's a lean and mean look at oil and perfect for the high school classroom.
"The Story of Oil" begins from square one, with some hokey CGI dinosaurs to set the stage for how oil is "born." When a show's worst aspect is some bad CGI that doesn't end up detracting from the core content, you know you are in good hands. Evenly paced, the program goes from the creation of oil to how modern man came to use fossil fuels. The narration is clear and concise, sticking to the facts, leaving the editorializing for the experts the program interviews later on. The program's balance of science and history are quite refreshing and this disc could easily be used in either a science or social studies classroom.
Eventually, once the background information about oil is set out, the program does take a social stand, sometimes slyly pointing out how our quest for oil in the oceans have created dead zones. This area rings with greater impact now, considering the entire Deepwater Horizon debacle plaguing the Gulf of Mexico. Not so subtle are the editorial comments by some of the experts interviewed when the program moves away from the science behind oil to the politics and economics behind oil. Fortunately they are kept to a minimum and in their defense, they are good points that plant the seeds for a discussion following the program.
If there is one major fault to "The Story of Oil" is trying to cover too much, too fast. The 90-minute runtime for the most part feels very rushed, jumping from the hard science, to politics and economics, to social commentary, and then back to science. While this may be perfect for the average student, I do have concerns that some interesting facts may be missed by the quick pace and for any adults watching the program, many aspects may be too light in content. Still "History" is to be commended for trying to be as thorough as possible.
Ultimately the big take home message from "The Story of Oil" is that oil is not some magic fuel of infinite supply. It is a temporary solution to a serious problem; its issues reach far beyond that of the science of energy, but also into the preservation of our planet, global politics, and the economies of entire nations. While I knew a lot of the material coming into the program, this documentary isn't necessarily aimed at educating me. This is an entry-level disc for those wanting to get the skinny on a major political/global issue or for a classroom teacher wanting to get students interested in oil for a new unit.
As negative as I was about "History's" other entry in this new "Instant Experts" series, I give them high marks here. This is the type of program that should be airing on both the network and marketed as a teaching tool. While I do question the repackaging of prior programs under new names, I don't feel this case was as deceptive as the "Beowulf" entry. The supposed documentary was nearly three years old and apparently out-of-print, so this more bargain priced re-released gets a pass from me. Take note "History" this is the type of stuff we want from you.
The 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer boasts strong vibrant colors, as well as some digital artifacts, and aliasing during the segments filmed specifically for the program. The weak CGI dinosaur scenes are very ugly and the technical hiccups do them no favors, while the footage from other sources actually, at times looks the best. It's a passable transfer, but wholly inconsistent.
The English 2.0 audio track features a rich supporting score and well-balanced narration free of distortion. For a pure documentary, this audio track is more than sufficient.
A text educators supplement is included as well as a 10-question review quiz on the disc itself.
While still plagued by the standard mediocre technical presentation of so many "History Channel" programs, "Instant Expert: Oil" is a rewarding, overview of oil from a number of angles. While the average person might just want to give this rental, for the classroom teacher, the audience I feel this "Instant Expert" series is targeted to, I strongly recommend this program without reservation; to both those in the sciences and global studies. Recommended.