Full Disclosure: Benjamin Franklin is one of my favorite Americans. I've read his 'Autobiography' and have seen multiple programs about his life, including the mini-series by PBS from the early 2000s and various History Channel programs (e.g., "Founding Brothers"). His accomplishments are legendary to me and so, when I heard about this new documentary from Ken Burns, I was all-in. I've enjoyed Burns's work over the years, especially the "Baseball" series, Lewis and Clark, and the Jack Johnson film. Great stuff!
So why only a '7' rating? Well for one, there wasn't a lot of new information here for me. That might be because I've read his Autobiography and have seen those aforementioned shows. So if Franklin is new to you, or you only know about him from your school textbooks, then you will likely find this much more edifying than I did. It covers most of the highlights of his life, which is good, but sometimes they get a curious short shrift. His 'Franklin Stove,' for example, only gets something like a two-sentence passing mention in a 4-hour program. Odd. Other facets of his life, like his experiment with vegetarianism, aren't even mentioned.
More bothersome, though, was a strange, albeit slight, current that seemed to run through the narrative here. Namely, that it wasn't sure if it wanted to celebrate Franklin and his accomplishments, or downplay them; or, to denigrate him for his failings. One odd example was the following: after explaining how Franklin abandoned his indentured servitude to his brother and ran away from home at the age of 17, and how from this destitute state he was able to build himself up into the man we know today, a strange comment is made in the film. A voice says something to the effect that ..."but Franklin had opportunities that were not available to women or people of color."
Uh, what? I don't even know what means. Is the film suggesting that a woman or a person of color was just waiting to invent the lightning rod, but just didn't have the opportunity? This is silly and sloppy. Franklin was an incredibly unique individual. He was an autodidact and a polymath, and celebrated in his own day as a veritable genius. So I don't understand what the point of "but he had opportunities others didn't" is trying to say. If it's suggesting that there were plenty of people who could have achieved what Franklin did, if only they had the opportunity, well, that's wildly presumptuous, and frankly, just plain dumb. Wow.
At another point, Franklin's famous quote about the Constitution is mentioned. After the Convention, Franklin is known to have said "We have a Republic...if we can keep it." In this film, this quote is remembered, and the story is framed with more detail. Namely, we are told a prominent Philadelphia woman is the person who asked Franklin "what have we got?" after the Convention was over, to which Franklin gave his famous reply. But the film, in telling this story, feels the need to insert a comment that the woman, "whose rights were not considered by the delegates," asked the question. What rights are we talking about here? The right to vote? That pretty much didn't exist for women anywhere on earth in 1787. The idea of women's suffrage wouldn't be seriously considered by most of the world's nations until the 20th century.
So the film's narrative, at times, seemed to adopt a snooty and haughty attitude about Franklin and his contemporaries, and I would say was trying to apply a 21st century morality to an 18th century world. 'Women's Rights" were unheard of at the time. Ditto for LGBTQ rights. And so on. No one was flying a rainbow flag in America in 1787. It was a completely different world. To point this out as some sort of failing is just bizarre, and I think, out of place. So I have mixed feelings on this one.
There were more examples, like one historian questioning Franklin's sincerity in embracing the Abolitionist movement towards the end of his life, suggesting he was reading 'which way the wind was blowing' and so made his choice because of that, instead of doing it because of any heartfelt conversion about the issue. I am not sure how this person claims to know what Franklin was thinking and feeling about it, but it came across as suspect, and actually annoying, for anyone to claim to know what another person's motivations were, while having no proof to make such an assertion. So to listen to this historian, Franklin became an abolitionist because it was becoming popular to do so, not because he really cared about the plight of enslaved people. How can you make such a claim without evidence? And why was such irresponsible conjecture included in the film? I have no idea.
So for these reasons, I have to take my rating down a few pegs. Still enjoyable overall, but the sneering attitude that sometimes comes through makes it a challenging watch. One wonders if this was really a 'passion project' for Burns or not. I can't tell.
7/10. Competent but comes with complications. Would I watch again (Y/N)?: Probably, but I might go for the PBS one first.
Action / Biography / Documentary / History
Action / Biography / Documentary / History
Exploring the life and work of writer and publisher, scientist and inventor, diplomat and signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution: Benjamin Franklin.
April 17, 2022 at 09:11 AM
Tech specs720p.BLU 1080p.BLU
1 hr 53 min
P/S 3 / 22