An Ambitious Effort Suffers from an Awkward Format
Brett Leggett | Los Angeles, CA | 06/14/2006
(2 out of 5 stars)
"(original version posted May 11, 2000)
Based on the book by Peter and Philip Kunhardt, The American President is an ambitious five-part series of mini-documentaries about the first 41 men who served as president. What distinguishes this documentary from others is its grouping of presidents into broad themes based on shared administrative styles, family backgrounds, and other features. For example, FDR and Kennedy are grouped according to the influence and power of their families in shaping their careers. Jefferson, Coolidge, and Reagan share time according to their governing philosophies. Spanning about 10 hours, each biography lasts roughly 15 minutes.
While an interesting idea, treating each president by theme rather than in chronological order presented some nagging problems for me. Inevitably, some presidents fit into more than one category (do you put Coolidge into the vice-presidential succession category or treat him by his governing philosophy?). History is largely about studying themes, but the danger of shuffling presidents out-of-time and forcing them into categories is the potential for over-emphasizing the role of these factors in shaping their administrations while de-emphasizing other important influences (e.g. the time in which they lived). For instance, in the "family" category, much is made of the power and influence of Kennedy's family in his decision-making, too much perhaps. If you knew nothing about JFK, he might come off as someone who considered his father's wishes before making every decision-- how could anyone be qualified to make that assertion in a 15 minute overview?
Fifteen minutes per president means that major corners had to be cut and major facts omitted. These kinds of cuts are hard enough when trying to touch upon major chronological events. This becomes nearly impossible when trying to present themes since omissions are more likely to lead to generalizations and create misconceptions. For example, if I knew little about FDR's background and the program tells me, as it does, that he had an "affair" which damaged his marriage (without further explanation), I might be tempted to group him with the indiscretions of those like President Clinton. In fact, the exact nature of his relationship with Lucy Mercer had a long evolution and has never been very well-defined. I'm not a big fan of prying into the personal histories of our leaders (past or present), but I offer this as an example of how easy such general statements can inaccurately color one's perception of another. On a minor note, I also didn't find it helpful to have a different celebrity first person narrator speaking as each president... radio personality Don Imus as Andrew Jackson just didn't do it for me.
If the producers wanted to discuss presidents in terms of themes, they should have abandoned covering all the presidents and focused on the themes that interested them. For instance, you could do a whole documentary on presidents who expanded executive power and have more time to deal with the subject. This series tries to be an overview of all the presidents, but it does little more than condense the life of each man into the documentary equivalent of a "soundbite." At best, you're left wanting more. At worst, you may be left with some false impressions. I'd suggest looking elsewhere...
My favorite series of presidential documentaries have been produced by the PBS series, "The American Experience" over the past several years. This is a comprehensive, masterful, and very enjoyable series covering presidents such as Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Nixon, and several others. Each program runs nearly four hours and is about as thoroughly-researched and comprehensive as you can get for T.V. while still being fun to watch.
My Handicapped son's DVDs
Charles J. Heim | Louisville,Ky | 09/12/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I have a 33 year old autistic son who loves politics.But he really loves presidential history so these DVDs seemed just perfect for him.He really likes the DVDs and watches them almost every day.Thanks"