At a time when some worry about where America is going, it’s wise to learn more about where we’ve been. If you want a beautifully filmed look at the social and military origins of the United States, then binge-watch PBS’s “Liberty!”
Year it began: 1997
Where it can be seen: PBS, DVD
Who’s in it: Philip Bosco, Peter Donaldson, Victor Garber, Edward Herrmann, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mel Johnson, Jr., Terrence Mann, Jefferson Mays, Donna Murphy, Forrest Sawyer and Francie Swift
Typical episode length: 60 minutes
Number of episodes: 6
Brief plot description: Mixing dramatization of historical people and events with interviews with experts, “Liberty!” tells the social and political story of the American Revolution and the early United States.
Why it’s worth watching: This is an epic historical documentary that is both beautifully filmed and deeply informative. “Liberty!” is thorough in its presentation and family-friendly in its approach. Directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, “Liberty!” features well-paced and intelligently written episodes that are each introduced by Sawyer and narrated by Herrmann. The greatest strength of “Liberty!” is that it offers a balanced account of the revolutionary American history, giving us insight into the social and political background of a war that it very thoroughly narrates.
An excellent cast of actors brings historical individuals to vivid life, helping us feel the significance of events to both major players and ordinary folk. Particularly strong performances include Bosco’s wise and worldly Benjamin Franklin; Murphy’s engaging and insightful Abigail Adams; Donaldson’s shrewd and pugnacious John Adams; and Mann’s delightfully pompous General Burgoyne. While “Liberty!” teaches us much about the most famous Founding Fathers, its fine actors also explore less commonly covered perspectives. Garber’s John Dickinson makes clear how difficult declaring independence could be; Johnson conveys the experience of an African-American escaping slavery and joining the revolutionary fight; and Swift’s Baroness von Riedesel helps us feel what it was like for those accompanying Hessian mercenaries. Of special note is Hoffman’s fine performance as Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier whose diaries reveal the experiences of regular soldiers throughout most of the war.
The dramatic interludes are enriched by illuminating interviews with noteworthy scholars of American history, including Jeremy Black, Pauline Maier, Margaret Washington and Gordon Wood. “Liberty!” includes an excellent score, along with historical folk melodies played by Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis, among others.