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Beyond the lightning, there was Franklin the superstar

We're a society of quickened pulses, our impatience incompatible with historical perspective.

November 18, 2002|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Blame much of it on TV. Just as most entertainment shows fix all problems before the closing credits, so do news programs rev up facile answers prematurely, dismissing context as musty and irrelevant. These self-proclaimed lords of information are not so much architects of learning as carpenters who hammer in minutiae relentlessly.

So cheer "Benjamin Franklin," a very smart PBS biography from the production team that five years ago delivered the even more intoxicating "Liberty! The American Revolution." No tidy endings or team coverage here: Something chewable has been added to TV's menu of gruel.

"Ben Franklin" doesn't shimmer like "Liberty!" Yet once again filmmakers Muffie Meyer and Ellen Hovde, along with executive producer Catherine Allan, set the U.S. in a global landscape that enables us to better picture ourselves in relationship to others. Once again they dust off and energize events most often found hibernating in books and brains.

You'll be surprised to learn, by the way, that Franklin did not leave his mother's womb in 1706 as the balding, avuncular old man we see on $100 bills and elsewhere. Prior to finding a link between lightning and electricity when putting a key to a kite during a storm, and before entering geezerdom as one of America's founding fathers, he actually had a youth.

"It's easy to forget that he had hair once, that he was a little kid," says one historian here. And as a young man in London, adds another, "he sowed wild oats with abandon." This new film is a hybrid. Think docudramamentary, a mingling of lively comments from experts with superbly filmed reenactments and costumed actors (notably Richard Easton as Franklin) addressing the camera while speaking words from letters and diaries. They're a talky bunch, and "Benjamin Franklin" at times buckles under the weight of its own gab.

Yet expect smirky wit as well as gravity. There's truth to that old saw about those who ignore history being destined to repeat it. Beyond that, "Benjamin Franklin" makes history flat-out fun.

The crowd of scholars here attests to a wide and enduring interest in Franklin, whose amazing life has generated lore for storytelling around the campfires of all generations. No current U.S. public figure is remotely like him.

He was born a candle maker's son in Boston, rising from "impotence to importance, from dependence to independence," he's quoted as saying about himself.

His great mental acuity fit the Age of Enlightenment in which he lived. He was a self-made businessman and prominent publisher who by age 35, we hear, was one of the richest men in Philadelphia. He was a slaver turned abolitionist, standing apart from his fellow founding fathers -- whose concept of liberty excluded blacks. He was a writer and a passionate inventor, credited with creating not only aphorisms galore but also bifocals, the Franklin stove, a system for street lighting, a more efficient post office and, most famously, the lightning rod.

The consensus is that Franklin generated his own sparks. "That blasted kite with its key," as one historian calls it, "made him a celebrity." Not that he wouldn't have reached stardom without it.

Two trips abroad are recalled here as pivotal in his growth as an epic American. The first, in 1757, has him returning to England on behalf of Pennsylvania to squeeze money from its founder's son, the aristocratic fop Thomas Penn. Fat chance. "Mr. Franklin's fame means nothing here," Penn sniffs.

A supporter of the realm whose eyes light up like Union Jacks when he says "the British Empire," Franklin stays in England nearly 18 years. His loyal wife, Deborah (Roberta Maxwell), remains at home, and his readiness to sever her from his life for so long hints, we're told, that he was less a saint in private than in public. While in London he also somehow wangles the New Jersey governorship for his son, William (James True-Frost), even though his raging Anglophilia later fades after Parliament imposes the repressive Stamp Act on the Colonies. When Franklin finally sails home, he's firmly for the revolt that's already underway, putting him in conflict with the royalist William.

Franklin is off to Paris a year later on a second seminal journey, "the master publicist," as some call him, this time secretly cajoling France to join the battle against the British. He plays the French like chess pieces ("You learn caution, not to make your move too quickly ... "), while visiting the salons of poufed, perfumed and powdered aristocrats whose own revolution waits in the wings.

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