- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

“The killing is just intense,” says James I. Robertson Jr. “It’s disorganized. These men are just going down in incredible fashion. Dead bodies everywhere.”

A historian at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Mr. Robertson was describing the Battle of Antietam in the fourth installment of the History Channel’s new 10-part miniseries, “10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America.” But his words apply with equal force to at least half of the hourlong documentaries, each directed by a different award-winning filmmaker, that make up this engrossing and provocative collection. That so many of the seminal days explored here revolve around violence and bloodshed bespeaks either a disquieting reality about the American character and experience or a certain bent among the producers who selected these specific days to remember.

Galloping along in chronological order, from the English settlers’ attack on the Pequot Indian tribe at Mystic Fort in 1637 up through the murders of James Earl Chaney, Michael Henry Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, “10 Days” makes use of a wide variety of storytelling techniques, from the usual and occasionally grating to the novel and surprisingly compelling.

As always, actors in golden, sunlit re-enactments gesture a bit too dramatically with their hands, and sound editors overdo the twig-crunching noises accompanying each goose step in the advancing Nazi march. But these are quibbles.

The story of Shays’ Rebellion in 1787, the failed Massachusetts revolt that spurred the adoption of a national Constitution, is told almost entirely in Bill Plympton’s charming color animation. The other installments employ an oddly mesmerizing technique: Figures seen in the foreground of archival still photographs appear to move in one direction while the camera and the backgrounds of the photographs move in other directions.

In Michael Epstein’s “Antietam,” the series’ most riveting and harrowing installment, the special effects required an acknowledgment up front that “some photographs depicting the Battle of Antietam were created for this film.” Thus, Union and Confederate soldiers can be seen, in this oxymoronic hybrid of moving stills, not merely in the candid poses in which the legendary Matthew Brady and other photographers captured them, but in those they (likely) struck before and after the “real” images were taken. The overall effect is to make the single bloodiest day in American history — 23,000 men killed or wounded in a 30-acre cornfield — come vividly alive.

Interspersed among the re-creation, illustrations, animation, still photos and archival footage are the talking heads. Their learned passion for history is exceeded, on occasion, only by their naked ambition to provide the perfectly succinct, forceful sound bites that would ensure they made the final cut. In some cases, the filmmakers secured the best of the best in their fields: Pulitzer Prize winners Joseph J. Ellis and Richard Rhodes comment on Shays’ Rebellion and Einstein’s involvement with the Manhattan Project, respectively.

Bruce Sinofsky and Marco Williams, directors of the final two installments — “The Day America Was Rocked,” about Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” in 1956, and “Freedom Summer,” respectively — pursued sources unavailable to most of the other filmmakers: eyewitnesses.

Thus, members of Elvis’ old backup vocal quartet, the Jordanaires, reunite to do a credible reprise of their vocals on “Don’t Be Cruel.” The tension of the civil rights era is evoked through the memories of persecuted blacks and Rita Schwerner Bender, widow of Michael Schwerner, one of three slain civil rights workers whose murders heightened white consciousness of the need for change.

Other “10 Days” subjects include the gold rush of 1848, the Homestead Strike of 1892, the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, and the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925. Inevitably, some extremely consequential moments in American history are omitted from the self-limited scope of the series. (It’s not called “All the Days That Unexpectedly Changed America.”)

The series blessedly keeps political bias to a minimum. Perhaps the most blatant example comes in the Elvis episode, wherein black-and-white footage of Ronald Reagan at a hearing in the 1950s is used to cover a professor’s recollection of “Hollywood actors and producers who come and testify about our movies making our children criminal.” Taken by itself, the juxtaposition is harmless, but in the context of the segment, Mr. Reagan is depicted as a villainous square, his anti-communism — the subject on which he most frequently testified in the ‘50s — presumably as silly as the crusading fever of Dr. Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist who linked comic books to juvenile delinquency.

Elsewhere, political correctness is admirably tempered by the presence of contrary evidence and points of view. Case in point: The English massacre of the Pequots, in what is now Mystic, Conn., is chalked up to the white man’s greed and penchant for “total war” and “how little intercultural understanding there was between the Indians and non-Indian people.”

Yet the show also notes the rival Mohegan tribe’s complicity in the slaughter. Tribe members, according to University of Connecticut history professor Walter B. Woodward, pounced on Pequot escapees from the massacre and, in “horrible” fashion, “finished the rest off.”

Rory Kennedy’s examination of Homestead, a deadly clash between unionized steel workers and hired Pinkerton agents loyal to Andrew Carnegie and his Pittsburgh plant manager, Henry C. Frick, is admirable for its inclusion of the views of Frick’s great-granddaughter, Martha Frick Sanger. “The problem with the unions,” Ms. Sanger says, “was they tried to control the amount of production, the quantity of what was produced, who was hired, who was fired. And this was impossible for Frick. He was too good a manager.”

At the same time, the Enron and Tyco scandals are cited as “legacies of Homestead,” and narrator Martin Sheen declares in the final moments that “the vision those [striking] workers shared — of equality, of justice — still has meaning today.”

One wonders, finally, what author JoAnn Levy was thinking when, in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s absorbing study of the gold rush, she addressed the imbalance in the numbers of men and women who were flocking West. “Prostitution was not against the law,” she says. “So it was just an economic move on the part of the women. It was a smart thing to do. All those men out there alone — what an opportunity!”

“10 Days” arrived in reviewers’ hands fully produced, lacking only some introductory graphics. Presumably, then, Executive Producer Susan Werbe vetted the project and has no problem with the History Channel airing a program containing the unchallenged assertion that 19th-century prostitution was simply “an economic move” by women and “a smart thing to do.” For a somewhat different view of the “opportunity” prostitution afforded women in the mining towns of the Old West, Ms. Werbe and Ms. Levy might flip over sometime to HBO’s “Deadwood.”

On balance, “10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America” is television at its best: engaging, informative, thoughtful, at once fast moving and unhurried in its pace. Teachers will find the individual episodes useful educational tools, and students might appreciate a vehicle for learning that is neither as taxing as reading a whole Cliff Notes nor as unreliable as your average Oliver Stone movie.


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