After watching one episode of Unsolved History (Roman Colosseum), I had grave doubts about the quality of the other Unsolved History program I was slated to review. As it turned out, Death of the USS Maine is in fact a better program than Roman Colosseum. That still doesn't make it worth watching, though.
The documentary actually opens reasonably well, with about seven minutes of introductory material explaining the basic situation of the USS Maine issue: in 1898, the Maine mysteriously exploded while anchored in the port of Havana, Cuba, a Spanish possession at the time. As tensions between the U.S. and Spain were already in the air, the swift conclusion that the Maine had been destroyed by a Spanish mine provided the final rationale needed to launch what became known as the Spanish-American War. But the question remained: had the Maine really been sunk by a Spanish mine, or, as modern scholars and engineers gradually came to believe, was it really an accident that became a convenient rallying cry for an aggressive government?
That's the question that Unsolved History sets out to answer, and in fact by the end of the program it does answer the question in a reasonably conclusive manner. But oh, the process it takes to get there... What could have been an interesting story of scientific investigation is chopped up into sound bites that never let a scientist speak for more than sentence or so, and the few bits of informational material are presented, and repeated, at a glacial pace. The narrator provides a pretentious, overly dramatic voiceover that seems to have been read from cue cards; at least that's the only way I can explain the completely unnatural pauses in the narrative. It's as. If the narrator didn't really. Know what he. Was saying but was. Trying to make it sound impressive anyway. Argh!
Death of the USS Maine is, apart from a badly paced and information-light program with a lousy narrator, an exercise in missed opportunities. The whole situation just cries out for commentary on the social and political climate of the day, with the U.S. government literally looking for an excuse to have a war, and "yellow journalism" hyping the issues with little to no regard for the actual truth. But these issues are not just skirted, they're outright ignored.
In fact, the way the program wraps up is downright nauseating. We've just learned, through compelling evidence, that the USS Maine sank because of an accident, not enemy action. That should lead us to reflect on the ethical problems of a war which we can now see was purely an aggressive one against an innocent country, based on the presumption of terrorist action but no real evidence. (Perhaps the ease with which one could replace "Spanish mine" with "weapons of mass destruction" made the filmmakers uneasy. So much for learning from the past, then.) Yet Death of the USS Maine plays "see no evil, hear no evil" with regard to critiquing or even commenting on the political and cultural context of the explosion. The program closes by paying tribute to the "brave sailors" who died aboard the ship, putting a patriotic spin on what is really one of the less savory incidents in U.S. foreign affairs.
The image here is watchable, but nothing more. It's reasonably bright and clear, without too much noise. There's some severe pixellation at times, with sharp lines looking visibly jagged. Apart from that, it's fine. The program is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The basic stereo soundtrack is satisfactory. The voiceover narration is clear and easy to understand, as are the various scientists and engineers who appear in short clips throughout the program.
There are no special features here, unless you consider an amazing lack of consideration for the viewer to be a "feature." Viewers are slapped with a non-skippable advertisement for Discovery Channel and high-speed Internet before even getting to the menu. And chapters? Chapter design is for wimps. We get chapter stops at 10 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. instead of logical content-based segments.
Unsolved History: Death of the USS Maine is a sorry little production, with a few shreds of interesting material surrounded by lots of filler material and drawn-out narrative puffery. Conspicuous in its absence is any consideration of the political and cultural consequences of the USS Maine's explosion... rather curious considering that the incident was used as the excuse for a war. All in all, Death of the USS Maine is only 45 minutes long, but it's still 45 minutes that you can use doing something more productive. Skip it.