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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > History > TV > The Presidents (To G.W. Bush/History Channel DVD)

The Presidents (History Channel)


Picture: B     Sound: B     Extras: C-     Episodes: B



The three-disc The Presidents set is an exhaustive look at the American presidency, from its infancy with George Washington to its current incarnation with George W. Bush, to be sure.  Broken up into eight, roughly 45-minute segments spread over the three discs in the set, The Presidents looks and the lives and careers of the 42 men who have held the office of President (yes, there are 43 presidents, but Grover Cleveland served two, non-consecutive terms) and what led them to the office.


The segments are interesting in how they tie the lives of the Presidents into one another.  During some periods, like the Revolution and Civil War, the connection is explicit; in others, what bridges one president to another could be as simple as a friendship or as complicated as the inner workings of political patronage.  And through the analysis of historians, authors, and even former President Jimmy Carter, we are given some insight and background into these people, in many cases putting a human face on what have ostensibly become static portraits hanging on the walls of the White House or found in pages of books.


The best segments are the ones that deal with the oft-forgotten Presidents, like Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, or Chester Arthur, to name a few.  These aren’t presidents in the mold of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or the Roosevelts.  These people had interesting presidencies in their own right, but not of the consequence of the “major” presidents.  So to get insight into these characters of American history is interesting and exceptional.


The problem with a set like this, though, is that the looks at the lives and careers of the Presidents is too quick.  Because the segments are only 45 minutes long, there can’t be a great deal of time spent on any one president, unless it’s a Washington, Lincoln, or FDR.  What results, then, is a somewhat trivial look at the Pierces and Fillmores of American politics, with their portions or segments broken into one decent thing they accomplished, any scandals, how they’re viewed by history, and cutesy factoids.  Perhaps this is the only way to approach such presidents in this format.  After all, to have a truly global view of the presidents would require something akin to the 11-disc World At War set that documents World War II.  Add to that the logistics of programming a series look at the presidents to run on the History Channel, and the difficulty of proper looks at the President is compounded.


But as it is, The Presidents is as good a set as one could expect given the source material.  The 1.33 X 1 analog NTSC video is crisp and clear, but as it is a recent television program being converted to DVD with little to no bells and whistles as far as the video presentation goes, there would be no excuse for anything less than what is presented here.  Sonically, too, The Presidents doesn’t stray from being a television program on DVD, resulting in an audio presentation that sounds exactly as it should — clear and precise.


On the extras side, there is little to speak off.  The only extras here are a text-only timeline of the American presidency and a 90-minute A&E special on the lives of the First Ladies of the United States.


The documentary, on its face, is a proper addition to this set.  When watching it, though, two things are striking: first, how ramshackle the production is when compared to the segments on the Presidents; second, that it should have been broken up, a la the segments on the Presidents.


All the President’s Wives” looks at most of the First Ladies, but the documentary is broken up according to common thread rather than chronologically.  For instance, there is one section on First Ladies who had to face the loss of their husbands while they were sitting Presidents.  That’s all fine and good, but Jackie Kennedy is talked about and discussed in numerous sections of the documentary, including the one about the assassination of President Kennedy.  So why not pull all the information about Jackie Kennedy together into one segment?  It’s a question that perplexes throughout the documentary, and indeed causes you to stray form what’s being shown because you’re trying to relate it all together.


That extra documentary constitutes the only significant extra in The Presidents set.  What could have been added to make it more interesting extras-wise is debatable — how about a selection of inaugural speeches?  Or how about some of FDR’s Fireside Chats in the form of audio-only extras?  Maybe some of the debates from past elections that have been broadcast on radio or TV, perhaps? — but what’s not is that this set shouldn’t be picked up with the expectation of a treasure trove of extras.


What can be expected, though, is a decent set on the lives of America’s Presidents.  In a time when the office is under more scrutiny than ever, this set offers a nice, compatible package that puts the present in the context of the past while offering hope for the future of the office.



-   Dante A. Ciampaglia


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