Flawed but great US founders

History Channel explores lives of America's first leaders

It turns out that scandal-mongering, partisan squabbling, and political intrigue are old, if not venerated, American traditions. Founding Brothers (History Channel, May 27 and 28, 9-11 p.m.) looks at the nation's founders as they worked with one another after the American Revolution. It isn't always a pretty picture.

But even when they were spreading rumors, leaking scandals to the press, or making alliances against one another, they actually did have the good of the nation (as each saw it) in mind.

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Joseph Ellis, and the filmmakers interview a variety of historians as well to make the picture as fair as possible to each of these extraordinary men. Paintings, etchings, reproductions, and reenactments give visual richness to the narrative.

Learning that great men sometimes misbehaved like schoolboys makes the program disconcerting. Yet their scuffling made possible a new kind of politics – a balance of powers and a concern for the ordinary citizen.

The story begins as George Washington is inaugurated president and John Adams vice president. The country is nearly bankrupt, the slave issue threatens to divide the country, and the British remain a constant threat. But the people loved Washington. He was the glue holding hostile factions together, as Hamilton and Jefferson took potshots at each other.

When Washington retired after eight years, he took the glue of solidarity with him. John Adams was elected president and the runner-up, Jefferson, became vice president (imagine Al Gore as President Bush's vice president!). Eventually, Jefferson was helped to the presidency by his old enemy Hamilton.

In old age, John Adams and Jefferson found solace in renewed friendship. They both died on July 4, 1826.

Overall, it's a truly amazing story. The first two hours are not as uplifting as the second two. It is helpful to remember that although these men were brilliant, they were certainly human, too. But they rose to the task of creating a new nation despite their flaws. And the tensions among them actually encouraged compromise and experimentation.

Joanne Freeman, professor of history at Yale University and author of "Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic," is one of the historians in the film. She says Americans don't know their own history as well as they should. Part of the problem, she says, is that we were taught names and dates, but not the human process at work.

"It has to do with trying to understand how and why people at that time did what they did," she says.

The film was made from the human point of view, she says, probing such questions as: What was Washington's strategy? Why did the British think they were right?

The men were doing something extraordinary, she says, but they were not without flaws. Despite pressure from women like Abigail Adams and their own misgivings about slavery, the Founding Fathers neither liberated slaves nor granted women full citizenship.

But they did keep an eye on the well-being of future generations – a major difference between them and politicians today, she says. "They spent a lot of time worrying about posterity ... they were aiming to do something amazing, and they were trying to transcend their own time."

* * *

A modest, well-made film on Showtime celebrates the last effort of a great American novelist. Last Call (May 25, 8-10 p.m.) finds F. Scott Fitzgerald (Jeremy Irons) struggling with alcoholism, but trying hard to write another book, "The Last Tycoon," helped by his secretary, Frances Kroll.

Frances (Neve Campbell) listens to Fitzgerald's problems, helps him with a woman friend, and encourages him to stop drinking. Mr. Irons has made a career of playing decadent men ("Reversal of Fortune," "Lolita," "Betrayal," "Stealing Beauty"). But he is capable of something more significant – he can also play men of profound spiritual goodness ("The Mission"). Both of these talents are fused into an honest but loving tribute to Fitzgerald. Ms. Campbell holds her own with this powerful actor. There's spirit, strength, and compassion in her performance.

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