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American Future: A History, The (DVD Review)

16 Jan, 2009 By: John Latchem

Simon Schama American Future

Street 1/20/09
BBC Video
$34.98 two-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Simon Schama.

According to the old cliché, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat them. Simon Schama, a history professor at Columbia University who happens to be British, has taken the notion to heart with The American Future.

Like any good historian, Schama sets out to understand how the past has shaped the present and future. Over the course of four episodes, Schama charts parallels between similar events in American history, and what lessons the nation learned as a result. The hour-long segments chronicle America’s use of its resources, its attitude toward war, immigration, and the collision of faith and politics.

The issues are framed for the 2008 election, and the show aired in the days leading up to it. Schama adds a post-election introduction that in essence congratulates us for electing Barack Obama, in his words reaffirming America’s ability to reinvent itself. Schama’s documentary is a thoughtful exploration of how America has already reinvented itself, learning how to use its resources, or adjusting its military goals when needed.

In Schama’s view the United States is locked in the philosophical struggle between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, played out time and again in American politics, with Hamilton’s vision of military exceptionalism prevailing each time over Jeffersonian statesmanship. Schama calls America “the tough-guy empire — trigger happy cowboys addicted to the rush of military power” and wonders why America has never seen itself that way. He would come to learn the issue is much more complicated than that.

Schama’s is an interesting experiment: The outsider taking an honest look at the nation that broke free of his homeland.

The American Future sports impeccable production values, with a good mix of archival materials and sweeping landscape vistas. Hardcore history buffs may want to give it a chance, but it’s probably too methodical for the typical History Channel crowd.

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