Sunday, January 2, 2011

Review: American Experience - Robert E. Lee

Tomorrow night, the PBS’ flagship history series, “American Experience,” will premier its documentary “Robert E. Lee,” which chronologically examines the life of Robert E. Lee beginning with his education at the United States Military Academy at West Point and ending with his death, five and a half years after the end of the Civil War.

Narrated by Michael Murphy, the film weaves together excerpts from Lee’s writings, newspaper headlines and interviews with a stellar cast of historians: Peter S. Carmichael, Michael Fellman, Gary W. Gallagher, Joseph T. Glatthaar, Lesley J. Gordon, Winston Groom, Ervin L. Jordan Jr., Elizabeth Brown Prior and Emory Thomas.

In a broad sense the film gives its viewers a brief examination of the man who is arguably one of America’s most beloved generals, but its topic is much too large for its 83 minute running time.  The film briefly discusses the genealogical backgrounds of he and his wife, Mary Custis, and paints him as a family man with warm and loving relationships with his children, even though they are often separated by time and distance.

Lee’s time at West Point is highlighted as are the various engineering posts he held up to the time of the Mexican War, during which his crossing of the lava field, known as “The Pedregal,” began his ascension in the army ranks.

The documentary spends a fair amount of time on the Secession Crisis, building up the Virginia’s session from the United States, and Lee’s decision to resign from the army, but completely omits Lee’s earlier role in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

The film quickly moves through the Civil War battles of The Seven Days, 2nd Manassas, Antietam (no mention of his lost orders) and Fredericksburg.  It calls Lee’s performance at Chancellorsville his finest hour.  The first two days of the Battle of Gettysburg, are omitted in favor of the 3rd and more dramatic day of Pickett’s Charge, and then it quickly moves on to Lee vs. Grant in the Wilderness, the Overland Campaign and finally the Siege of Petersburg.  In closing out the war there is an all too brief discussion of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox.

“Stonewall” Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart are briefly mentioned during the film, but Lee’s relationships with them are not at all discussed.

On the topic of Lee’s declining health during the latter half of the war, the possibility of his having suffered a serious heart attack in the spring of 1863 is discussed, as well as the stoke that ultimately lead to his death in 1870.

Over all American Experience’s “Robert E. Lee” is a good documentary, heavy on the bullet points of Lee’s life and career, but lacking in depth and substance, and left me wanting more.

American Experience: Robert E. Lee, will air on PBS, Monday, January 3 at 9 p.m. ET.

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