Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 15, 2017)
Thanks to the success of a certain Broadway musical, interest in Alexander Hamilton stands at a high level. The Founding Father becomes the focus of a 2017 History Channel documentary called Hamilton: Building America.
The program mixes dramatic recreations with the usual “talking head” interviews. We hear from musical creator Lin-Manual Miranda, TV newsman Tom Brokaw, political commentator Cokie Roberts, op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, former US Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, Fortune magazine staff writer Christopher Matthews, New York Post publisher/CEO Jesse Angelo, and historians Richard Brookhiser, Joanne B. Freeman, Stephen Knott, John Sedgwick, Thomas Fleming and Ron Chernow.
Though I majored in history, I admit my knowledge of Hamilton remained modest. I preferred 20th century topics, and when I explored the period covered by Hamilton’s life, I felt more interested in the American Revolution, so most of this documentary’s material became new to me.
84 minutes doesn’t leave a lot of breathing room to cover the life of such a significant figure – even if Hamilton died at the age of 47. He accomplished an awful lot in that relatively short span, so Building lacks much space to tell the tale.
The filmmakers appear to realize this, so they turn Building into a documentary with an urgent feel – too urgent, to be honest. The program flies past us at such a rapid pace that we rarely get time to take in and reflect on what we learn.
The stylistic choices don’t help. Building tends to feel like a Michael Bay approach to a documentary, as it mixes quick cuts, spinning cameras and dramatic music that covers every second of the show.
I get that the filmmakers want to give history some oomph, especially given the inherently dry nature of so much of the material. Face it: a show about a guy who helped make policy doesn’t exactly lend itself to engrossing story telling, so Building needs some way to spring to life.
While I get that, I still wish the show gave us a calmer view of the subject. The urgent style becomes wearying, as the hyperactive pacing grows tiresome quickly.
Which feels like a shame, as clearly Alexander Hamilton offers a subject who deserves our attention. And to be fair, we certainly learn a lot about him here, as the show covers the most prominent aspects of his life.
I just feel like it moves so quickly that little of this material will stick with the viewer. A longer, better-paced Building America would’ve been more satisfying than this frantic effort.