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America: The Story of Us(TV) (2010)
Sharing their thoughts on the building of America, and what it means to be an American, are a world-class group of individuals including Tom Brokaw, Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep, Buzz Aldrin, Colin Powell, Donald Trump, John Legend, Melissa Etheridge, Brian Williams and more.
DISC 1 (Episodes 1-4):
Rebels / Revolution / Westward / Division / bonus
DISC 2 (Episodes 5-8):
Civil War / Heartland / Cities / Boom / bonus
DISC 3 (Episodes 9-12):
Bust / WWII / Superpower / Millennium
For more about America: The Story of Us and the America: The Story of Us Blu-ray release, see the America: The Story of Us Blu-ray Review
America: The Story of Us Blu-ray Review
One of the most ambitious efforts to air on History arrives on a three disc Blu-ray set.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, September 9, 2010
Time is by its very nature such an ephemeral entity that it remains one of the central enigmas of our existence. When, for example, does "what happened" become "history"? That seems an especially cogent question in this supercharged era of 24 hour news cycles, when virtually every picayune situation around the world is deemed "Urgent" or "Breaking" or some other adjective denoting something of utmost import. History Channel of course attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff, putting both minutiae as well as larger arching stories into their proper context. The latter, mixed with a smattering of the former, is on hand throughout America: The Story of Us, a towering and teeming nearly 12 hour enterprise which traces everything from the 300 million year old meteorite which formed the Cumberland Pass to the first settlers of Jamestown to the rebels and rascals of the Revolutionary War, through to the formulation and expansion of the nation we call the United States of America. While a series of this magnitude can't really delve too deeply into any given subject, or even timeframe, America: The Story of Us does manage to follow a rather sensible through line which attempts to weave something akin to a typical dramatic arc, usually falling back on the time honored tradition of focusing on the robust, independent and innovative nature of the American spirit. While the series gives us a more or less chronological narrative which begins with the Jamestown settlement and ends with the dawning of the Age of Terror, it does stop by the wayside more than a few times to explore individual stories of people both well known and probably relatively little heard of.
America: The Story of Us takes the typical History Channel approach of liberal doses of CGI, historical reenactments, and talking heads, mixed with a pleasant, if sometimes portentous, narration by Liev Schreiber. The series does an exceptional job of keeping the story moving, offering some splendid visuals to engage the viewer, and some at least occasionally cogent commentary. One aspect which may be cringe inducing to those more academically inclined is the reliance on such "expert" commentators as Michael Douglas and Sheryl Crow. The series would have done better to stick with the more historically astute people who are indeed included in many episodes, people like Tom Brokaw and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. But America is after all a democracy, a place where all voices have their place, so despite the sometimes banal reflections of some of these annotators, overall the series gives a good representative sampling of thought about what the United States has meant, both philosophically and more fundamentally as a driving force on our planet for the past several hundred years.
This Blu-ray presentation is split into three discs, each with four episodes.
Rebels. This premiere episode features a brief introduction by President Barack Obama, and then launches into a good overview of the iconoclastic spirit of so many who helped forge this nation. Starting in 1610 with a quick look at John Rolfe, the farmer who would go on to marry Pocahontas (not to be confused with Captain John Smith), the episode looks at the impact tobacco had not only on the agriculture and economy of the day, but how it laid the foundation for the American empire, for better or worse. Seven generations of settlers, including the Pilgrims, farm and begin to tame the wilderness before the nascent desire to start an independent nation begins to form in the American soul.
Revolution. The years of 1775-1781 are covered in this often violent episode, which purports to reveal the "secret history" of the Revolution. Starting (rather interestingly) with the battle for New York City, the episode recounts the guerrilla tactics employed by the rebels, which took the form of then unheard of strategies like targeting officers, leaving the British regiments without clear leadership. Little sidelights into various historical characters are also given, including Washington's friend and comrade, Baron von Steuben, who was most likely drummed out of his own army for being gay.
Westward. The rather odd sight of outer space starts off this episode, as a meteorite from 300 millions years ago creates the Cumberland Gap, through which countless settlers headed west. The Lewis and Clark expedition receives some cursory treatment here, with an emphasis on the unlikely source of wealth which propelled a lot of westerly exploration: the beaver pelt. Segments on the Donner Party and the Alamo are also featured.
Division. The seeds of discord have been sown for generations in the United States, with millions of slaves living lives of servitude in the South, as an economy built around cotton requires fieldhands. This episode makes a very compelling case that the growing industrial nature of the country sealed its fate, in terms of an inevitable conflict. The North, despite its own technological challenges with such epic building projects as the Erie Canal, still looked Southward toward the burgeoning economy built up around a fabric plant, and they wanted that success for their own, without the distressing aspects of slavery which accompanied it.
Civil War. This most barbaric of wars is given a rather interesting twist in this episode, one which focuses on then new technologies which made this conflict "state of the art" in its own time. These innovations included the deadly "mini-ball" bullets, mass produced instruments of destruction. Also explored is the telegraph, which revolutionized communication, including that between Lincoln and his generals. An interesting segment deals with the 200,000 black soldiers who fought for the Union.
Heartland. The sad fate of the buffalo is dealt with in this interesting outing, which begins with the amazing fact that over 300 million of the beast once inhabited the Great Plains, before the slow yet steady encroachment of settlers began to seal their fate. With wagon crossings taking around six months, and boat trips around South America just as long, the cry for a Transcontinental Railroad became more urgent. Despite its emphasis on the technological triumph the railroad was, this is an often sad episode as it recounts the 371 treaties (most of which were ignored) which shuffled Native Americans off to reservations, as well as the rather interesting fact that many buffalo deaths were at the hands of Civil War vets, still armed, who had nothing better to do after the War than to hunt the Plains animals.
Cities. One of the more visually impressive outings in the series, Cities takes the tack that vertical building is one of the great American innovations. While the skyscrapers themselves may be impressive, the denser populations also brought with them several challenges. Crime soared, and this episode recounts how it was possible to rent a gun in Chicago by the hour. Also becoming a problem was sewage, At one point major cities saw nearly a half million pounds of horse manure deposited per day.
Boom. We move into the 20th century with the advent of an economy built largely around oil. As the industrial revolution finally swings into full force in America, such titans as Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie recast the American worker in their own image. A really interesting sidebar in this episode deals with the 1919 Race Riots, which began in Chicago after a policeman refused to arrest a white man who had (perhaps accidentally) killed a black man. The unexpected effects of Prohibition are also explored, including the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Bust. What goes up must come down, and Boom turns to Bust as the stock market crashes and the Great Depression spreads like a malignant cancer across the land. This episode evokes the Steinbeckian world of Grapes of Wrath as it looks at the Dust Bowl and the havoc it wreaked on the American farmer. President Roosevelt's still controversial meta-socioeconomic cures for the problems created by the Depression are looked at.
WWII. This good overview of one of the epochal events of the 20th century actually spends as much time exploring the economic side of the equation as it does the political side. While the horrors of war are not to be discounted, the fact can't be denied that World War II was the shot in the arm which the American economy had been craving since 1929. It was also an era of unparalleled American innovation and enterprise, leading to a heretofore unknown prestige and power for the nation.
Superpower. The post-War world is one of undeniable American supremacy, and yet it's oddly also an era of unmitigated paranoia and rampant fear mongering, including the perceived threats of Communism and the Cold War. American innovation and technology continues to lead the world, at least through the Eisenhower era, but there are hints that presupposed American dominance may not last forever.
Millennium. The question of when "what happened" becomes "history" is rather artfully examined in this episode, which recounts events so recent that virtually all audience members will remember at least some of them. The September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center is the harbinger for a whole new era, one where ideologies more than nations come into play.
America: The Story of Us Blu-ray, Video Quality
America: The Story of Us is presented on Blu-ray with an AVC encode, in full 1080p and a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. As with many History Channel offerings, there are some distinct quality differences due to source and stock footage and footage shot especially for the miniseries. The contemporary footage, typically interview segments and some reenactments, looks quite good indeed, with well saturated color and decent, if not overwhelming, detail. Sharpness and depth of field are both very good. Things get a little trickier with both the CGI elements, which are omnipresent throughout the series, and some of the stock footage. The CGI is never incredibly artfully done. It certainly suffices and allows the viewer to get the gist of what's being discussed, but it never rises to the high-def heights of Pixar (ironically John Lasseter is one of the talking heads in the series). Stock footage is all over the map. It's never horrible, but a lot of establishing shots of various locales suffer from softness and occasional artifacts like shimmer. The worst stock footage is probably the very grainy, blown up segments from NASA detailing the space race.
America: The Story of Us Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Unfortunately, there are some pretty big problems to report with the two lossless soundmixes included on America: The Story of Us, at least with regard to some surround sound systems. I'm not sure whether I received defective discs for this review, or there is an authoring error, or if this is just a case of overly aggressive LFE (to put it extremely mildly), but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is, to put it bluntly, unlistenable on some systems. It's hampered by a completely odd, and overpowering, low frequency hum which drowns out narration, on screen commentary and sound effects. It's an odd and unsettling pressure inducing vibration which I frankly couldn't stand to listen to for more than a second or two. I spot checked almost all of the episodes over the three discs and it was present on all of them. I also tried playing the discs on different players and got the same result. My Onkyo 7.1 handled this anomaly best, with just a clumsy mix being the biggest culprit (Schreiber's voice is regularly buried under the omnipresent LFE), but my Sony 5.1 system went completely bonkers, with virtually nothing but the roaring LFE coming through the speakers. Another odd thing: when toggling between the two tracks, for a brief moment the 5.1 track shows a negative bitstream!
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix is marginally better. It at least does not have the omnipresent low hum, but, wow, is it ever an annoyingly noisy track (by which I mean sound effects, not hiss or the like). It is "busy" so much of the time that one actually feels a sense of relief when things quiet down and we just get Schreiber's narration or some onscreen commentary without a bunch of whizzing effects cluttering up the soundfield unnecessarily. Even this track is hampered by some poor mixing, however. When the sound effects do gear up, they often overpower Schreiber's voicework. While it's understandable to pump up battle scenes and the like with appropriate sound effects, this is one exhausting soundtrack to listen to for any length of time. Sometimes less is more.
America: The Story of Us Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Seven okay, if unremarkable, snippets on the first two discs are included, which offer a bit of supplementary material on specific subjects. Disc One includes American Revolution (1080i; 3:21), Declaration of Independence (1080i; 3:52), and George Washington (1080i; 2:21). Disc Two includes Civil War (1080i; 4:06), Transcontinental Railroad (1080i; 3:28), The Statue of Liberty (1080i; 3:12) and Henry Ford and the Model T (1080i; 3:21).
America: The Story of Us Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
America: The Story of Us is an often riveting look at a nation of iconoclasts and innovators. With an engaging visual style and a good mix of general themes interspersed with individual stories, the series is never less than interesting, even when it devolves into specious commentary by stars, as opposed to scholars. This Blu-ray is plagued by a hobbled soundtrack, but otherwise this is a sterling release which offers both educational and entertainment value in abundance. Recommended.
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