A group of young men–Sam Adams, John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren–secretly join together to oppose British domination, and end up sparking the American Revolution. [Dir: Kari Skogland/ Ben Barnes, Marton Csokas, Ryan Eggold/ 87 min/ Drama, History/ American Revolution, Resistance to Tyranny]
For history to be kept alive, it must be told and retold in the language of each succeeding generation. Unfortunately, the American Revolution—arguably the single most pivotal event in the long epic of human freedom—hasn’t had a popular retelling since the classic 1957 Disney hit Johnny Tremain.
There was, of course, the musical 1776 (based on a stage play), and there have been a number of good PBS documentaries, the best being Liberty! The American Revolution, but musicals and PBS documentaries are not exactly popular; Mel Gibson’s The Patriot doesn’t count because it was more a story of personal rage and revenge than history.
Sons of Liberty is really the first good cinematic update in nearly 60 years to the story of America’s founding. And that’s what makes this History Channel production so important—it breathes new life into the story of the Revolution, by dramatizing it in terms not just accessible but engaging, even one might say sexy. Who knew Sam Adams was a daring heartthrob? Well, with handsome British actor Ben Barnes (a.k.a. Prince Caspian) in that leading role, it would be hard to be otherwise.
That said, the series is not without shortcomings. While Adams may come off as dreamy, other founders do not fare so well. In particular, the telling is unfair in its characterization of John Hancock (wimpy and grasping) and Ben Franklin (debauched); you get the impression that a cynical History B.A. from our current intellectual milieu was consulted, and decided with the screenwriters, over drinks in a Hollywood dive, to cartoon-ize these two into stock characters. The greatness of the Founders, the honor of their intentions, the power of their intellectual work, and depth of their personal sacrifice is diminished here, and in other respects as well serious history buffs will recoil at the details.
But there are good reasons to forgive these sins.
First, while specifics may not be perfectly faithful to history, the skeleton of actual events is all there—taxes spurring resistance, in turn answered with brutality, leading to organized rebellion, and that ending in war and finally revolution. Broadly speaking, that’s pretty much dead-on.
Second, this dramatization at least returns the American Revolution—a subject otherwise relegated to seventh grade—back into the popular conversation, and in a form that has attracted significant attention. The final episode had a debut TV audience of 3.3 million, including 1.1 million in the 18-49 demographic prized by advertisers. With reruns, streaming content and DVDs, that audience will expand considerably. It also scored coveted critical acclaim, and from quarters not noted for their libertarian sympathies. This series is not a niche product suitable just for true believers but a genuinely popular show that has successfully crossed the political divide.
Third, it’s just good storytelling; you feel for the rebels, you understand what they are fighting for, and you admire them for the heroes they were. The ending scene of the film, when the Founders are signing the Declaration of Independence, and full-on war finally breaks out, is particularly touching. Cinematography is also superior, at times even artistic.
And most importantly, it transforms the image of the Founders from dry intellectual men of the past, about whom young people reluctantly read because someone tells them to, into the cool crowd of their time, which oddly enough they were. In that sense, while some details may be off, this is actually a truer picture than you get from more staid accounts. And as the cool crowd, they are interesting and accessible.
Yes, this may be history MTV-style, but it works, and millions of Americans who seldom think of the American Revolution, and what it means, are talking about it again. That is all to the good.
A small side issue: there is a warning at the beginning of each episode regarding graphic scenes of violence. Occasional use of fast-forward would be sufficient to make this series perfectly acceptable for teens; it would be a pity for them, of all people, to miss it.
External Reviews of Sons of Liberty
“A well-made dramatization that brings history to life.”
–New York Times
“Dramatically rewarding and frequently informative as it looks at the band of Boston rebels who planted the seeds of independence through their defiance of the British some 20 years before the Declaration of Independence.”
“A fast-paced, fact-packed trot through the early days of the American Revolution.”
“‘Sons of Liberty’ rips the powdered wigs off America’s founding fathers. In a good way.”
–New York Daily News