For most Americans, he's merely the anonymous face on the ten dollar bill or perhaps an obscure character recalled from Michael Bay's memorable milk commercial of the mid-90s. Doubtless, the reason for his commemoration on a piece of currency remains a mystery to most of the people who pass his bill across the counter to a cashier completely unaware that this illegitimate native of the West Indies was a pivotal figure in the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, crafted many of the policies executed by President Washington, and built the very foundation upon which the American economy runs.
These are the key contributions addressed in Alexander Hamilton, a two-hour documentary written by Richard H. Blummer and directed by Muffie Meyer for PBS's educational anthology American Experience. Having previously produced Liberty! The American Revolution and Benjamin Franklin, the team's colonial credentials are without question and their production brings Hamilton to life in a way printed biographies seldom can. Using actors to perform actual historical documents in period settings created by judicious use of foreground props and background slides, Hamilton breathes life into letters and journal entries written by the eponymous financier as well as historical luminaries like George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, it is these latter three icons that define Hamilton's character more than any other. It was Washington who adopted Hamilton as his aide-de-camp during the revolution and later relied on him as a principal policy advisor while the latter served as the country's first Secretary of the Treasury. While Washington saw Hamilton as a son and political heir, Adams loathed him as a treacherous and conniving opportunist and the two men's mutual dislike eventually scuttled the fortunes of the political party they jointly led. Hamilton's philosophical opposition to Jefferson, though, is the dramatic centerpiece to the program and their fundamental disagreements over whether the union or its component states should be superior would eventually end in the elevation of the federal government above that of the states after the carnage of the Civil War.
Irish Actor Brian F. O'Byrne (Oz) embodies the intelligence and intensity of Hamilton with just the right air of arrogance to lend credence to Adams' dislike. Indeed, the dramatic recitations, culled from an incalculable array of historical documents, are the highlight of the film. A variety of interviews with well-regarded historians are interspersed throughout the documentary, but they feel rather like schoolteachers trying to parse Shakespearian dialogue for students they feel unable to do the work themselves. It's not really necessary to explain Jefferson's philosophical dislike for Hamilton when Jefferson's own words clearly state the Virginian's case in more dramatic terms.
The program's greatest triumph rests with its keen sense of Hamilton's character and the skill to convey it on screen. That the filmmakers manage to capture the irony of a foreign bastard who rises via his own merit through American society to champion government by an aristocracy of intelligentsia while opposing the apotheosis "the common man" spouted by the hereditarily wealthy Jefferson is a triumph of historical observation. PBS Home Video supplements their clean, if slightly soft, 16x9 transfer and stereo soundtrack with a brief making of featurette as well as several deleted sequences that round out the history of the rather handsome colonial character whose face often greets us when we pay cash for a movie ticket.