Produced and written by David Grubin et al
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1/1.78:1
Running Time: 2100 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; 2.0 stereo/stereo surround English
MSRP: $ 129.99
Release Date: August 26, 2008
Review Date: August 20, 2008
PBS Home Video has assembled a huge, rather daunting box of biographies covering significant American Presidencies of the 20th Century called The Presidents Collection. Dealing with many of the most famous names in American politics of the last century, The Presidents Collection is impressive in its scope, detail, and design. True, because these individual sets have been done by a host of different writers, directors, and producers, the approach is not always consistent, and due to their natures, some of the same rare footage is used over and over, but what is consistent is the fairness and objectivity that has been applied to the coruscating examinations of the ten Presidencies under the microscope in this overwhelming box. By the end, we’ve not only been delivered complete biographies of ten of the most famous Americans of the past one hundred years, but we’ve seen a panoply of American history unfold before our eyes. One can’t help but be constantly impressed, often shaken, and consistently moved by the human stories beneath the pomp of the Presidency.
Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, the set also offers inside information on the lives and political careers of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, the Kennedys (John, Robert, and Edward), Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, James E. Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. We see their political and personal triumphs and tragedies, feel palpably the tenor of the country leading up to the elections which either brought them enormous victories or crushing defeats, and also learn of more private moments away from the White House where often overwhelming personal problems make one wonder how these men were ever able to cope with the enormous strain of leading a country with so much of a personal nature also demanding part of their time. Whether one shares in the ideologies of the individual men or their parties, the politics are absolutely fascinating and the rise and fall of careers is something that never grows dull.
The parade of historical events which occupied each of these Presidents is also fascinating. During these discs’ contents we take part in two world wars, various military operations from Teddy’s Rough Riders to the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf, and witness the enormous struggles for women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, and the rise and fall of Soviet communism. The staggering changes in the world as witnessed over the course of these nine decades make for mesmerizing viewing.
The various producers, directors, and writers of these programs have utilized a voluminous number of old photographs, audio recordings, silent and sound motion picture footage, and television broadcasts and some of the footage is one-of-a-kind (watching Franklin Roosevelt “walking” with the help of his muscular son, a nitroglycerine pill popping from LBJ’s mouth during a speech, to name just two examples). A gallery of respected historians, relatives, and members of the various Presidents’ staffs are present to offer testimony and opinions on the various men and their years in the public eye. Often, they are as fascinating as the men they’re describing, and what some of them have to say has never before been documented. Many distinguished, award-winning actors and historians do the narrative commentaries on the discs; among them are Jason Robards, Linda Hunt, David Ogden Stiers, Stacy Keach, and David McCullough.
The Presidents Collection is one of the most worthwhile assemblages of historical fact it’s ever been my pleasure to peruse. The complexity and profundity of its information and insight make a review like this seem tinny indeed.
The Presidents Collection appears in a variety of screen shapes though most are 1.33:1. The Woodrow Wilson set is irritatingly nonanamorphic 1.78:1 while the Jimmy Carter disc and the disc on George H. W. Bush are anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 and look by far the best of the group. All of the discs, even the anamorphically enhanced ones, have occasional problems with moiré and stair-stepping in some of the old photographs and film footage. Almost all of the modern interviews are sharp and detailed and feature excellent color. Obviously, the quality of the rare film footage is spotty, but that’s no fault of the transfer.
Most of the discs offer a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track which places the narration in the center channel and music and occasional Foley effects in the right and left front speakers. Though there are occasional phase problems, most of the narration is solid. The Woodrow Wilson set features a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround track with more frequent and effective use of the rear channel than one might expect. The George H.W. Bush disc uses a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix, but the narration is spread across all three front channels, a bit overpowering as it turns out.
Only three of the disc sets in this collection contain bonus features.
Woodrow Wilson offers the viewer the opportunity to watch the documentary in a straightforward way or in an enhanced mode. In the latter presentation much like Infinifilm, the viewer is given the option to branch away from the presentation and view mini-featurettes of from one to two minutes on various topics being discussed at that point in the documentary proper. Such mini-documetaries on race relations, women’s suffrage, labor rights, and personalities of the period like William Howard Taft or Henry Cabot Lodge are offered.
The Wilson set also offers a World War I poster art gallery in which the viewer clicks on a poster and a historian describes briefly the history of the art work in an adjoining window.
There is also a scholar’s forum in which ten different historians can be selected to talk for a minute or more on Wilson’s legacy.
The Kennedys offers a 6-minute featurette called “JFK’s Hidden Life.” This interview with historian Robert Dallek discusses Kennedy’s little known health problems including his Addison’s disease and other illnesses that required a mountain of medication.
George H. W. Bush has a 15 ½-minute featurette which appears to be in part an outtake from the program dealing with the 1988 Presidential campaign called “Going Negative.” It is a lengthier version of the sequence in the show itself dealing with Bush’s desire not to mudsling during the campaign against Michael Dukakis.
Also in this set is a 2 ¼-minute sequence with a Bush parachute jump done when he was 83, another likely cut sequence from the end of the program.
A teacher’s guide is available as a downloadable DVD-ROM feature with the collection.
For lovers of history or the political process of capturing and holding a Presidency, The Presidents Collection would seem to be essential. It is certainly worth a rental even if one isn’t interested in delving into all 35 hours of content. I would imagine that history classes for years to come are going to be using these discs as supplemental aids in the classroom.