The election of Barack Obama serves as both touchstone and framework for The American Future: A History, a four-hour, four-part documentary hosted by historian Simon Schama. In fact, title notwithstanding, Schama actually doesn’t say a lot about the our nation’s future, other than the obvious (noting that water shortages will increasingly be an issue, particularly in the western states, is hardly stop-the-presses stuff); his main point here is that Obama represents the country’s best chance to regain its stature in the world and reverse what he calls “the nationwide loss of faith in government” that festered throughout the George W. Bush years. Not a very original thesis, but what Schama, a Brit who has lived half his life in the States, has in spades is a flair for providing information in a manner that’s engaging and entertaining but rarely pedantic or excessively scholarly. Each of the program’s four segments–entitled “American Plenty,” which addresses the water issue in the context of the history of Western expansion; “American War”; “American Fervour” (sic), in which Schama discusses on the nature of religious freedom; and “What is an American?”, which deals with race and immigration–provides not only a great deal of history but a revealing focus on individuals, both celebrated and otherwise. Thus we learn about the deeds of Montgomery Meigs, an engineer and Union Army officer who was a Civil War hero, or about the opposite stances taken by the pacifist Mark Twain and the gung-ho Theodore Roosevelt at the time of the Spanish-American War. We all know about Martin Luther King, Jr., but who has even heard of Fannie Lou Hamer, a cotton picker and folk singer who became a mid-’60s civil rights leader? And while the black mark of slavery informs so much of our country’s history, how many know about the plight of the Chinese workers who helped build the first transcontinental railroad in the 1800s? Schama’s ability to find the small, personal components of the big picture helps make The American Future both worthwhile and compelling. Bonus material includes an intro recorded by Schama on November 5, 2008, and a photo gallery. –Sam Graham
To coincide with the US elections of 2008 comes this refreshing antidote to the whir of sensationalist spin and scandal, measuring up to the seriousness of the moment without diluting the excitement of campaign politics. After 9/11, after Katrina, Enron and Baghdad, the robustness of American optimism is struggling to reassert itself against the sobering reality of military frustration and domestic anxieties. This is an America grappling with an un-American sense of its own limits. Turning to fascinating moments in American history to understand the present, connecting legendary presences such as Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ford, Mark Twain and General Lucius Clay with contemporary soldiers, businessmen, truckers, schoolteachers and (even) politicians, this series offers a timely and gripping vision of the United States – past and present – facing its moment of truth.