By Chris Byrd Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) -- Honest, yet sympathetic, the biographical film "Benjamin Franklin" gives viewers the opportunity to rediscover a Founding Father many may not have studied since elementary school.
The elucidating four-hour documentary debuts on PBS Monday, April 4, 8-10 p.m. EDT and concludes in the same time slot Tuesday, April 5. Broadcast times may vary, however, and viewers should consult local listings.
This 33rd movie from celebrated documentarian Ken Burns finds him teamed, once again, with two of his frequent collaborators, writer Dayton Duncan and resonant narrator Peter Coyote. Seasoned actor and singer Mandy Patinkin voices Franklin.
Since its subject's life story involves such mature topics as war, slavery, the mistreatment of prisoners, terrorism, capital punishment and out-of-wedlock births, this profile is most suitable for grown-ups. Given the program's educational value, however, many parents may consider it acceptable for mature adolescents.
Often considered the first quintessential American, Franklin was born Jan. 17, 1706, in Boston. At the early age of 12, Duncan notes, Franklin "began the work that would define his life" by indenturing himself as a printer's apprentice to his older brother James. After a quarrel between the siblings five years later, Franklin fled to Philadelphia.
Franklin's accomplishments thereafter were numerous and varied. He became a journalist and newspaper publisher, as well as a founder of both the Library Company of Philadelphia and the future University of Pennsylvania, which he originally called the Public Academy of Philadelphia.
Thanks to his storied kite experiment, undertaken with his 22-year-old son, William, moreover, Franklin, according to biographer Walter Isaacson, "developed the most important theory of the era: the single fluid theory of electricity." The discovery made him, as Duncan observes, "the most famous American in the world."
Franklin embraced the cause of independence only slowly. As the colonies' representative in London, he initially worked to avoid the coming rupture between North America and Britain. Yet, in the course of accusing him of fomenting revolution, George III's Privy Council publicly humiliated Franklin, with decisive consequences.
Subsequently, it was primarily Franklin's diplomacy that secured France's support for the newly founded United States. Without French backing, the Revolution might have reached a very different outcome.
"Benjamin Franklin" is at its most interesting in describing how these developments affected the polymath's fractious relationship with William. The latter was not only a resolute loyalist but the last royal governor of New Jersey. After their breach, despite pleas for reconciliation, Franklin had only a single conversation with William during the remainder of his life.
Still, as a printer at heart, Franklin believed more generally that people could always correct their errata. Thus, late in life, the former slave owner became president of the Quaker-sponsored Pennsylvania Society for Abolishing Slavery. In biographer H.W. Brands' view, he thus "tried to rectify" the nation's "central failing."
The filmmakers' fundamental assessment of Franklin will resonate with viewers. A man of astounding achievements, yet not without his flaws, he was, as Isaacson puts it, "someone evolving to see if they could become more perfect."
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.