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A high-octane spin on history

A PBS documentary about Alexander Hamilton aims to be engaging, not boring.

April 11, 2011|Christopher Smith

TV documentaries about American history in the post Ken Burns-age have a certain predictability -- a placid interweave of earnest interviews with historians, portraits of long-dead presidents and reenactments with the inevitable extras in period costume and fife and drum music.

But Monday night sees an energetic reworking of the form. "Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton" on KOCE illuminates the life and accomplishments of one of the most brilliant yet least celebrated Founding Fathers. It does so at a brisk pace; call it history with a high-octane kick.

Every few minutes, the two-hour documentary punctuates its points through storytelling devices that see past events through modern eyes:

-- Hundreds of high-school students reenact 1781's Siege of Yorktown, Va., a key early event in Hamilton's career, while wearing T-shirts and battling it out with inflated Thunderstix.

-- A classic 1993 "Got milk?" commercial about Aaron Burr introduces Hamilton's fatal antagonist.

-- A cartoon with "South Park"-like illustrations -- though not language -- explains Hamilton's innovative plan to finance the nation's post-Revolution debt.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, April 15, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Alexander Hamilton: An article about the documentary "Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton" in the April 11 Calendar section said Hamilton managed a shipping business on the Caribbean island of Nevis in his late teens. He managed the business on St. Croix in his early teens.

Even the final credits offer a creative jolt. They are accompanied by an engaging hip-hop video taped at the White House in front of President Obama. "The Hamilton Mixtape" is memorably performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer-star of the Tony award-winning musical "In the Heights."

Hosted and narrated by writer Richard Brookhiser, "Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton" strives to avoid dumbing down history and instead be a wake-up call to a tired television format. Director-producer Michael Pack, a 30-year plus television industry veteran, warned viewers in a recent online essay that "our goal was to make a different kind of history film. If you want the usual product, you may be disappointed."

"Our approach involves many small scenes," Pack said recently by phone. "Often, they are modern parallels, which we use to make the film lively but not trivialize the subject."

The program has its share of talking-head historians, as well as interview clips with notables whose political reach stretches from right -- Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia -- to left -- novelist and political polemicist Gore Vidal.

But for every orthodox voice, there are unlikely figures providing a range of perspectives.

In a segment about Hamilton's messy home life, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt oversees an editorial staff meeting discussing "gotcha" journalism; "The People's Court" judge Marilyn Milian presides over a raucous retrial of a Patriot vs. Tory lawsuit argued by Hamilton that paved the way for judicial review; and French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy zestily impersonates Talleyrand, the flamboyant French diplomat who visited the U.S. in the 1790s and who found in Hamilton a superior thinker to George Washington.

Pack's goal is, in part, to engage younger audiences.

"I have three teen boys, and we screened the program at one of their high schools recently," he said. "Afterwards, a kid told one of my sons that he counts on these Friday assemblies to catch up on his sleep, but this kept him awake."

Throughout the program, Brookhiser strikes an even though never dispassionate chord. Brookhiser penned a biography of Hamilton in 1999, and he admires his protagonist's overlooked accomplishments; raising Hamilton's profile on TV further provides an opportunity to right a historical wrong.

Brookhiser contrasted Hamilton's current obscurity with that of another nonpresidential but more famous figure from the same era, one whose face is also prominent on American currency. On the $100 bill, Benjamin Franklin is worth 10 times as much as Hamilton in our wallets, and his contemporary media status is exponentially higher too. Brookhiser believes he knows why.

"Franklin is friendly, fun, when seen through modern eyes," he said by phone. "Obviously, there's way more to him than that -- he's the one true scientist among the Founding Fathers, a skillful writer and a significant diplomat -- but he is someone we can relate to.

"Hamilton's achievements are rooted in finance and the law, topics that are not as easy."

Brookhiser sees Hamilton's creation of the American financial system as a legacy that still shapes lives now. "Very few people in the United States at that time understood the principles of a modern economy," said Brookhiser.

But Hamilton, who in his late teens successfully managed a fledgling shipping business on the Caribbean island of Nevis before coming to the United States for formal education, conceived of a future rooted in commerce and cities.

"Hamilton felt we should be part of a world of money and exchange, where people could thrive based on enterprise, not solely on owning and working land. He foresaw that capital would be generated by manufacturing and trade and that cities, where people would congregate, would draw strivers to create enterprises that did not yet exist."

Having made a first documentary, "Rediscovering George Washington" in 2002, Pack and Brookhiser are not done and plan -- once funding falls into place -- to complete a trilogy, featuring the higher-profile Thomas Jefferson.

Beyond illustrating Jefferson's political accomplishments and failures, what enterprise might Pack and his brain trust bring to showing the statesman's relations with slave and mistress Sally Hemings?

Pack reflected, and responded dryly: "I promise a Jefferson unlike any you have seen before."

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calendar@latimes.com

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'Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton'

Where: KOCE

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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