America: The Story of the U.S. is a 10-part documentary series taking viewers through the history of the nation right from its first pilgrims to the 21st Century and the post 9/11 era.
Given the tautological nature of the title, it may not come as much of a surprise that the title was changed from America: The Story of Us for international audiences. As such, there’s more than a hint of patriotism evident on screen.
The format of this documentary is fairly simple: each week an episode concentrates on a different period/event that helped define the nation. Events such as independence, the expansion West, the Civil War and the Second World War.
The documentary chooses to focus mainly on individual stories as it does this: using letters and diaries to help encapsulate the experiences of ordinary people at the time.
This is probably the biggest strength of the piece: these dramatisations are very well done, and the use of these real historical documents helps us to really understand what it was like for ordinary people as they made the long journey from East Coast to West Coast or of slaves as they dealt with the hardships of being denied their freedom.
The documentary also features American celebrities pitching in with their own interpretations of how these different parts of history helped them to understand what it means to be an American. The people chosen are very recognisable: Michael Douglas, Donald Trump, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, and Sheryl Crow are among those featured.
However, aside from a few exceptions, too much time is given to them recounting how much the American Dream means to them, and how it has apparently applied to every American in every period of their history.
This generalisation of the events of the past is an unfortunate chink in what is otherwise a very impressive armour.
It is completely understandable why documentary filmmakers would want to interview well-known American faces. However, since they may have little knowledge or emotional connection to, for example, the Frontiersmen who left everything to move West, it serves only as a distraction from the history the show is trying to present.
The Talking Heads are at their best when, for example, African Americans are speaking about their ancestors being slaves and how that has impacted on them. Harvard professors and Baptist Pastors adding their own insights on top of the individual dramatisations of what some slaves had to go through.
Overall, America: The Story Of The U.S. is a very watchable, well thought through piece that gives you a great place to start if you are interested in American History. It came as no surprise to me that the programme makers decided to offer the entire series, free of charge, to every school and college in the States. Since, at its heart this is a very engaging, ambitious, educational series.