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Thomas Jefferson - A Film by Ken Burns
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157 of 168 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2003
Ken Burns's documentaries are always well put together and very interesting. This one on Jefferson is no exception. The pictures, personal accounts, and music are what make his films so great. In this documentary, Burns takes a look at the life of one of the founding fathers of our nation.
As I said, I really enjoyed the style of this documentary, but there are problems as well. Unlike his excellent film on the Civil War, Burns seems here to ignore some basic historical facts. It's almost as if he tries to set up Jefferson as THE founding father instead of A founding father. Credit to Jefferson for drafting the Declaration of Independence is well-deserved, but giving him full credit for the treaty in France (which Franklin, Adams, and Arthur Lee had much more to do with than he did) is stretching it a lot.
When speaking of Jefferson's years in France, the film is silent as to the great friendship between he and John Adams. Indeed, Adams is portrayed as the great antagonist, and Burns here calls him a friend and close ally of Alexander Hamilton (also not true). Later, when Adams and Jefferson begin their famous correspondence late in life, you can barely understand why the two men are writing to each other (since it makes only passing mention of their previous close friendship).
Ken Burns has given us another good documentary here, but it would have been better, in my opinion, to make this one a little longer to be able to provide a more accurate portrait of Jefferson's life. Instead, many basic historical facts have been ignored, and we are left with a picture of Jefferson that, despite making him seem a great hero of the revolution (which he was), is not accurate.
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57 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2002
Six years ago this three hour biography of America's third president was telecasted for the first time on PBS. It should be retelecasted annually on July 4th as part of the annual celebration of the nation's independence.
Gore Vidal and George Will, at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, are among the historians and commentators that appear, reflect and illuminate on the life and ideas of the most contradictory of America's founders.
Like most, if not all, of Ken Burns' productions, "Thomas Jefferson," the program's script/narration is its most distinctive and memorable feature.
I only wish a text of program's script accompanied the DVD.
The appearance and commentary by Black historian John Hope Franklin provides appropriate balance to the program that tends to applaud Jefferson the man, his achievements and contributions.
The fact that Jefferson didn't free his slaves, and/or regularly had sexual intercourse with one of his slaves seem to me easily understood, considering his life and times. I'm not the least bit shocked, and my admiration of Jefferson is not diminished by these facts and/or speculations.
Every American should regularly be introduced to this giant of the American Experience.
"Thomas Jefferson: A Film By Ken Burns" should be every collection of quality DVD documentaries, and shown and studied in all American History classes.
I hope that PBS continues to release all of Ken Burns' productions on DVD.
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46 of 52 people found the following review helpful
This was an extremely pleasant television biography of our most complex president, and it certainly had a number of good things going for it. For instance, there are many, many wonderful shots of Monticiello in all kinds of weather, and this seemed to bring the viewer closer to Jefferson than many such examinations of his life do. And as in most of Ken Burns's undertakings, a number of eloquent scholars contributed their perspectives to the show. But the fact is that the show ends up passing over too many facts and aspects of Jefferson's life. By any standard, Jefferson is the most complex prominent American in our history. More has been written about Lincoln, and while there are aspects of his personality that baffle us, compared to Jefferson he is a model of transparency. So, I do not fault the documentary for leaving Jefferson a bit of a mystery. As Joseph Ellis remarks in it (repeating the central image of his admirable biography), if Jefferson were a statue, he would be a sphinx. I've read several biographies of Jefferson as well as at least a dozen or so books in which he features prominently, and the more I read about him, the perplexing aspects of his life and personality become more and not less baffling.

The documentary does a decent job of hitting the high points of Jefferson's life, though there is a definite tendency to skip over some aspects, perhaps because of time limitations. For instance, Jefferson was an absolutely awful vice president under Adams, and actively conspired to undermine his presidency, but no mention of this is made whatsoever in the series. Brief mention is made of his struggles with John Marshall, but it isn't pointed out that the struggle was whether there was going to be an independent judiciary (Jefferson wanted to be able to replace justices--even supreme court justices--pretty much at will). The point of an independent judiciary was to maintain a brake to public sentiment, other wise transitory popular opinion could create vast public mischief (think of the interment of Japanese American citizens during WW II and multiply it several times).

Also, the historical complexity of Jefferson's thought isn't even hinted at. Many of the most prominent Americans feel that Jefferson would have adjusted his thought under different historical circumstances (though one can reply to them that Jefferson has a strong utopian trend in his thought that renders much of what he envisioned as the ideal as profoundly unrealistic). For instance, Lincoln considered himself a Jeffersonian while not acceding either to Jefferson's agrarian ideal or his belief in a small federal government. Lincoln was a strong advocate of industrial development (he was a key figure in the building of the canals that made Chicago the key city in America's industrial and economic development in the 19th century) and in the government playing a major role in economic expansion. But he fully embraced the ideal of equality as the core idea of the American project. As the documentary points out, Jefferson embraces both the concept of equality and the idea of liberty, and did not seem willing to acknowledge that the two could be in conflict, whereas Lincoln's conception seemed to be promoting as much liberty as was compatible with insuring equality (at least in his matured thought). Or take Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, both who whom espoused the kind of popular democracy that Jefferson promoted and yet who thought that this could only be done through a strong central government that limited the grasp of trusts, robber barons, industrialists, or corporations (the terminology depending on what decade we are talking about). Woodrow Wilson explicitly argued that Jefferson would have espoused a strong federal government if he had lived long enough to see full blown industrialization and the rise of the modern corporation. Many of the Progressives argued much the same way, and it isn't an accident that it was in the New Deal that Jefferson's Memorial was authorized.

Much of Jefferson's public life was dealt with in fairly hit or miss fashion. For instance, there is good discussion of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, but the lack of detail of his presidency was stunning. Much better was the discussion of his private life, including the Sally Hemming controversy. The more I've read about the issue, the less certain I've become. We live in a scandal-driven time, and we lend credence to low conduct too easily. My own reading makes me very, very slightly inclined to believe that Jefferson was not the father of Hemming's children (we have no evidence from either of them, though one of Hemming's children claims she said on her death bed that he was), and the DNA evidence is less decisive and a good deal fuzzier than many commonly assume. The fact is that you can compile a very long list of supporting arguments on both side of the issue. But I think John Hope Franklin put it best: in the end it doesn't matter, because the more crucial point is that she was his property, and that was the more reprehensible fact. John Adams also disbelieved the accusation, but he also pointed out that with such a dreadful institution, such evils--whether rumored or actual--are inevitably going to arise.

I would definitely encourage anyone to see this documentary. If one has read no biographies of Jefferson, I would caution one to take the overall portrait with caution; if one is a seasoned student of Jefferson, one will delight in the host of visual images of Jefferson's world. If one wanted to go on to read more about Jefferson, I would recommend as a very good one-volume biography that of Joseph Ellis, which does a marvelous job of explaining why we continue to find Jefferson so fascinating, with the added attraction that Ellis was one of the major contributors to the series. The more ambitious could go on to consider Dumas Malone's exhaustive six-volume biography (which is not merely a great biography of Jefferson, but a marvelous portrait of the age) as well as Jefferson's NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA and the Jefferson-Adams correspondence. A significant portion of the documentary focuses on the latter, and I heartily agree that it is the finest correspondence between public figures in American history. But it is more than that: it is one of the great political classics in American history, belonging to such works as Paine's COMMON SENSE, THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, Tocqueville, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

In the end, the faults of the documentary are probably most likely the result of the limited time allotted to the subject. Jefferson is simply too vast a subject to be encapsulated in three hours. Nonetheless, while this will hardly do as a complete portrait, it remains either a pleasing introduction or an enjoyable supplement.
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41 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2007
I recently checked out this DVD from the library as I am currently reading the six volume biography of Jefferson by Dumas Malone (I am currently well into the fifth volume) and thought this would provide some additional visual references. This film certainly seems to be in line with the recent trend in biography towards psychoanalysis, of which this film, in my opinion, vastly overreaches itself, and is barebones on real facts and history. While Jefferson is certainly not a straightforward individual to understand, I do not believe he is the enigma that this film claims him to be. Certainly Jefferson's statements and writings assert strongly ideological ideas that were not always in line with the actions of his political and personal life, but this is by no means a rare human quality, especially in politics. Indeed, had Jefferson been an uncompromising ideologue, such as congressman John Randolph - his rival in the democratic-republican party of the time, he would have been roundly criticized for being aloof from reality. Jefferson held strong guiding principles, but recognized that pragmatism and compromise would be required to avoid jeopardizing the long term success of his ideals and the American experiment.

I also believe this biography overreaches in its portrayal of Jefferson as a tragic figure. It is certainly true that Jefferson lost many close friends and relatives throughout his life, including his father at an early age, his wife when she was still very young, his closest friend, and five of his six children before his death, but this is not extraordinary given the time period, nor do I think a strong argument can be made that these events significantly influenced Jefferson's thoughts, republican ideals, or actions.

Ultimately, I believe that presently much of the analysis of Jefferson is inevitably biased by academics (who make up most of the analysts on this film and certainly a large portion of those who support PBS) current aversion to the classic liberalism (what we would today call libertarianism) and limited government that Jefferson espoused. Had Jefferson been an ardent supporter of Federalism, I believe he would have received much more favorable analysis by these same analysts, such as Alexander Hamilton receives today. While the criticism of Jefferson in this film is certainly valid, the bias is due to the omission of counterpoints this film avoids mentioning.

Even without considering these criticims, this film is so barebones in its presentation of real history that no one, regardless of their political persuasion, could hope to form a valid opinion of Jefferson based upon watching it. There is strong disconnect between the college level of psychoanalysis this film advances and the elementary school level of historical narrative it presents.
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33 of 41 people found the following review helpful
This Ken Burns film is a good introduction to Thomas Jefferson. It is a remarkable overview of one of the most controversial figures in American history, touching on most of the well known discussions about him, such as, what heretofore were thought to be Sphinx-like, enigmatic characteristics. As this was made several years ago, however, you need to be bring yourself up to date. For example, on the Sally Hemings issue, DNA first was pitched by some as evidence that Jefferson fathered Hemings' children, but currently, it has actually served as proof that he almost certainly did not father Hemings' children. And on Jefferson's enigmatic, Sphinx-like characteristics, a new work by a previously unknown author/researcher by the name of Norman Thomas Remick titled "West Point: Character Leadership Education, A Book Developed From The Readings And Writings Of Thomas Jefferson" is a completely unique approach to understanding Thomas Jefferson that dispels the prior alleged "enigma" and brings Thomas Jefferson into clear focus. It's a must read after watching Ken Burns' wonderful DVD for all who are interested in Jefferson and what it is to be an American.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2009
I teach high school history, American and World to advanced placement students. For some reason that I have never fathomed, it is extremely easy to find engaging and interesting videos on World History that students love and look forward to seeing (CNN's Millennium Series comes to mind along with the History Channel's Engineering Empire series). But for American History-----good gosh! Did they sit down and decide to make the narrators sound like they're going to sleep? Do they want the students to keel over in their desks as their eyes roll up in the back of their heads? I don't know, but it's amazing how out and out DULL most American History videos are. There is one great exception----Ken Burn's Civil War. That was probably the best documentary ever done for many reasons. Exciting, interesting, etc. Outside of the marginally-engaging History Channel's Ten Days That Changed America, I haven't found many documentaries to interest teenagers. And when I saw that Ken Burns did a Thomas Jefferson program, I jumped at it. Well, something happened to the master after the Civil War production. The Jefferson documentary is like every other documentary you'll ever see----talking heads that will put you to sleep within seconds, and narration voice-over speakers who sound drugged into some kind of stupor. It seems to me that most documentaries today follow this same formula. I don't know why. So for those of you seeking exciting documentaries on American History that will foster interest (and keep you awake), good luck. There's a lot of good products on recent history, on Civil Rights, for instance, where you can actually see and hear the virulent racists speak for themselves and you can see archival footage of historical events. But what's happened to the great story tellers like Shelby Foote? You won't find many left. And you sure won't find them in this well-research program on Jefferson. But it's as dead as he is. And I repeat that I love Ken Burns and still recommend his other products. But not this one.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 21, 2000
Kudos to Ken Burns for his brilliant work on Thomas Jefferson. This documentary is OUTSTANDING in every detail. Historians comments are informative interesting and to the point about Jefferson. The pictures, portraits and location films are bright, fresh and brilliant, especially Monticello. The overall history, comments, beliefs of Jefferson are given with respect, but not shying away from his contreversial standpoints about his choice of keeping slaves and thus advocating slavery from the man who wrote that "ALL men are created equal". African-American historians give very valid viewpoints about Jefferson, yet they also give respect to him when it is due. The music is captivating and enhances this documentary. Overall, Ken Burns gives Thomas Jefferson respect and dignity about this hard to know complex man. Everytime you watch it, you catch something new that you hadnt heard before. A fine work that should be shown in every U.S. High School/College U.S. History Class. Jefferson was indeed the American Sphynx, he gave so much to his country yet his controversial viewpoints should be studied so we can all learn something about ourselves as well. VERY HIGHLY recommended to all History/Government enthusiasts!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2005
This Ken Burns documentary about the life and character of Thomas Jefferson offers some of the same touches that grace other productions by Mr. Burns: beautiful cinematography and filming (in this case, highlighted by shots of Monticello, Jefferson's 'little mountain' home in Virginia), an intelligently constructed and slowly unfolding narrative, and an emotive musical score. And to his credit, unlike other Burns' productions (such as the Civil War and Jazz), this film makes good use of a diversity of commentators, scholars and writers who give their thoughts on the subject, rather than relying on one or two main voices to guide the story. Highlights on this film are the opinions and thoughts of the historians John Hope Franklin, Joseph Ellis, and others, the writer Gore Vidal, and columnist George Will.

Ossie Davis' warm narration leads the script from consideration of Jefferson's youth, education and the contours of rural Virginia society in the mid-18th century to his entrance to the colony's political life, the writing of the Declaration, his time in France, and his sometimes bitter relations with the other leading figures of the revolutionary period (and the fundamental differences in political philosophy that they argued about). Jefferson's paradoxical, hypocritical, infuriating, and ultimately inexplicable status as an intellectual polymath, philosophe and social and political revolutionary who simultaneously held slaves, probably fathered their children, and never conceived how his status as an aristocratic representative of a bygone social order could be reconciled with the revolutionary ideas that were being put into practice in the new society he helped create receives its due attention. A touching conclusion offers a sympathetic portrait of Jefferson's years in retirement, earnestly pursuing his diverse interests, beset by money trouble, experiencing the death of many of his closest family members, and rediscovering his intimate, literate friendship with John Adams.

Ultimately, the most fascinating aspects of Jefferson that come through in this intelligent biography are the ambiguities of his character, and the idea that however much we analyze him from diverse points of view, the real, essential, Jefferson is never revealed (and perhaps never can be). This film is a highly recommended visual meditation on a complex man who makes today's political figures look like coarse, ignorant and ill-mannered children.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
This 1996 two-part documentary by Ken Burns provides an introduction to the man who was the third President of the United States but did not feel the position was worth mentioning on his tombstone. When he was 33 years old Thomas Jefferson wrote one of the most famous and important lines in the history of the entire world in the Declaration of Independence and over the next half-century of his life accomplished enough to warrant being on the nickel, Mt. Rushmore, and, ironically given his ability to embrace contradictory positions in his life's work, the $2 bill.

Burns begins the documentary with an anecdote which is the 19th century equivalent of JFK's quip to a 1962 dinner for 49 Nobel laureates that it was "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House-with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." But the primary focus is on the inherent paradoxes of the man who could write the Declaration of Independence but own slaves, write about their unpleasant body odor, and avoided emancipating them. The charges continue in kind: Jefferson denounced the idea of political parties yet founded the first one, denounced the moral bankruptcy of Europe but enjoyed the gilded Paris salons, deplored a centralized government and then became the chief executive of the nation and doubled its size by buying the Louisiana Purchase.

The thesis of this documentary appears right before Jefferson's name appears at the end of the introduction: "He remained a puzzle, even to those who thought they knew him best, embodied contradictions common to the country whose independence it fell to him to proclaim in words whose precise meaning Americans have debated ever since." The key point here is not just that Jefferson is an enigmatic figure but that his paradoxes are those written in the soul of the nation. It was not until Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg in November of 1863 that America finally accepted the proposition that "all men are created equal," but it was Jefferson who wrote the proposition. The gap between his vision and his actual achievement as a human being is arguably a defining element of the American spirit.

Do I think that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings? Yes, I do; the fact that she turned out to be the half-sister of his late wife Martha, along with his promise to Martha on her deathbed that he would never remarry, seems a compelling rationale to explain his behavior, although I would never confuse seeking physical comfort with love. Why did Jefferson never free his slaves? That is the question that will never be known for sure (there is at least enough DNA evidence to show that the Hemmings children were fathered by a Jefferson, whether Thomas or one of his relatives, perhaps his brother Randolph). My best guess at this point would be that he was afraid of what would happen to his slaves if they were freed and sent off into the world out of the reach of his protection. That his economic problems were such that the slaves were sold off after his death is but another contradiction in the long line of those that defined his life.

By now we are as familiar with the method of a Ken Burns documentary the same way we know the conventions of a situation comedy, romance novel, or rock 'n' roll song. The camera studies historic engravings and paintings before shifting to contemporary film taken in all four seasons of Jefferson's Monticello home and other key places from his life. The documentary was written by Geoffrey C. Ward and Jefferson's words are spoken by actor Sam Waterston with Ossie Davis providing the narration. Blythe Danner does the voice of Martha Jefferson, whom she played in the film version of the musical "1776." Many of those who have followed Burns' work will no doubt find much of the music familiar and be reminded from time to time of "The Civil War" and "Baseball."

If there is a failing in this documentary it is that it has trouble doing full justice to Jefferson's words, which in the final analysis are his greatest legacy and testament. The problem is that Jefferson usually wrote on large pieces of paper and the camera cannot capture an entire line, forcing it to rely time and again on showing us a few choice words and phrases. Yet there is no denying the power of those words or of seeing them written in Jefferson's own hand.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The Declaration of Independence is without question the greatest single statement regarding the rights of humans. A combination of idealism and practical politics, it is very underappreciated in the extent it was revolutionary. At a time when the world was ruled by religion and aristocracy, it said that all men are endowed by nature with certain rights, including the right to choose their governors. Scoffed at by the ruling class of Europe, it still survives at a time when they have been reduced to the fodder of tabloid rags. Written almost exclusively by Jefferson, that alone would have made him immortal. And yet, he did so much more, rightfully still considered a legend for the caliber of his intellect.
In this film the historical context for this document and what it meant to the world is presented in a manner that brings lumps to your throat. The American break with England was an incredible revolution, and unlike those in Russia and France, was much less bloody and far more permanent. That aspect of the story is made very clear, something that not all historical accounts manage to do.
However, there was more to Jefferson than his role in the creation of the United States. He put forward a bill to abolish slavery, he helped found the first public University and drafted much of the reasoning that led to the separation of church and state. The driving force for so many different revolutionary changes, there is no question in my mind that he is in a close race with George Washington as the greatest American of all time.
Much is made in the film about the contradictions of his life. Although he opposed slavery, he was a lifelong slaveholder and did not press for abolition. To me, this point is vastly overstated in the film. No one else could have introduced a bill to abolish slavery and the critics seem to forget that it took nearly a century and a bloody war to finally eliminate it from the country. Nearly a century after that, people such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Earl Warren were being vilified for their support of equal rights for blacks. Jefferson understood the problems that slavery posed for the country, and he should be praised for his foresight. He understood that the issue had the power to split the nation, and since it was still so young, he chose to preserve the union rather than abolish slavery.
This is one of the best historical films ever made. Jefferson is still the greatest intellect that this country has ever had and any criticism of him is dwarfed by his achievements. No one should graduate high school without having watched it.
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