Review: Hamilton Building America

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FROM THE BACK COVER:

This documentary captures the amazing life and times of our nation’s forgotten founding father: Alexander Hamilton. Exploring the iconic American political and financial institutions he helped to create – from the U.S. Mint and Wall Street to the two-party political system – we’ll examine Hamilton’s enormous influence that still resonates today. Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton served as the basis for the hit Broadway play, along with other notable names including Tom Brokaw and Maria Bartiromo, contribute to an all-encompassing look at one of our nation’s most accomplished leaders.

MY THOUGHTS:

As many of you know, I am a high school teacher by day, focusing specifically on American history. As a result, I’m constantly searching for new resources not only to use in class but to also educate myself further on the information. After all, how can I stress the importance of history and education to my students if I don’t also practice life-long learning, myself? Regardless, when given the opportunity to review a new documentary on Alexander Hamilton, I decided I was “not going to waste my shot!” (GET IT?!)

Alexander Hamilton has been recently thrust into the cultural spotlight thanks in large part to the explosive Broadway musical, aptly named HAMILTON. Naturally, Americans have had their curiosity piqued for this historic figure, who is both lauded and despised for his role in the creation of the United States’s federal government. Not only did Hamilton, who came from very humble origins in the Caribbean, rise quickly among immigrant American colonists to serve as Washington’s personal aid during the American war for independence, but he also then proceeded to lead (and frequently win) debates over the creation of a new US Constitution that would soon replace the Articles of Confederation. Credited with writing the majority of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays urging for the creation of a new, more centralized government, Hamilton proved himself extremely thoughtful, literate, and insightful. Conversely, he was despised by many anti-Federalists (later Republicans), including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who viewed Hamilton as an upstart, an immigrant and so-called “mushroom gentleman” who sprung up out of nowhere. It was this disdain for his strong personality and political intervention that ultimately led to his death in 1804 at the dueling hand of Aaron Burr.

Thankfully for Hamilton, he had the guidance and respect of George Washington, who, upon election as the first US president, then appointed Hamilton as his Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton proceeded to use his position and influence with Washington to achieve numerous of his goals for expanding the strength and reach of the Federal government, including the creation of the First National Bank. Even after retiring from the federal government, Hamilton continued to advocate federal growth. As the documentary accurately points out, Hamilton’s role in the development of America’s banking system, executive power, and national identity cannot be understated.

With that said, let’s talk about the documentary itself. Hamilton: Building America is a pretty standard History Channel special. It has a run-time of 84 minutes, which means that it has to cover a considerable amount of information in a relatively short period of time. By comparison, the run-time for the HAMILTON musical is 2.5 hours.

What I Liked: This documentary did a pretty good job of covering the “highlights” reel of Hamilton’s life, including his Caribbean origins, his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, his move to the US and subsequent roles in American politics. The information is mostly surface-level, and is easily understood – good old, basic US history facts. The documentary also includes a significant number of clips of qualified historians, professors, and political figures speaking about different parts of Hamilton’s life and influence, which I can appreciate. Nothing ruins a documentary’s respectability quite like the inclusion of random celebrities who largely seem unqualified for commentary (I’m looking at you, America: Story of US, even though I use you in class a lot). Additionally, there is frequent synthesis comparison to today’s political and economic atmosphere, reminding viewers that today’s divisive partisan politics and states rights / national rights arguments are nothing new. In fact, they’re older than the US itself. Real-world connections are important, and I appreciate that this documentary took the time to build those for viewers and remind them that Hamilton, while dead for over 200 years now, is still relevant to our lives.

What I Didn’t Like: There was an awful lot of repetitive B-roll footage that became quite distracting, much like the incessantly driving music that never seems to slow down. I imagine it’s an attempt to increase the drama, of course, but it seemed too much at moments in the story. The same scenes are used a number of times – Hamilton sitting at a desk or staring out a window, Aaron Burr looking quite snarkily at the camera, Jefferson and Madison shaking hands. It seemed a bit cliche, and I found myself longing to see scenes that were more appropriately representative of the dramatic nature of early-American politics. Additionally, I had a hard time reconciling the actors with the historical figures – their looks and costumes just seemed… off. And rarely do we hear anything from the actors themselves – everything is largely spoken by a single narrator or the interviewed experts. Do these issues take away from the valuable use of the documentary or reduce its ability to inform its viewers? No, not necessarily, but it may reduce their attention span, which was my overall issue.

In the end, this felt like a documentary produced in haste with the specific purpose of meeting a demanding market for more information about Alexander Hamilton following the success of the Broadway musical. This is largely a basic reformatting of information of information already well-known about Hamilton and isn’t groundbreaking in its depth of knowledge or its approach to educating viewers. As a history teacher, would I show it in class? Probably not, mostly due to time constraints (I have to be picky about what I show). But would I recommend it to students to watch outside of class? Sure. Overall, I give Hamilton: Building America 3 of 5 stars.

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