Historical documentarians face a problem -- no footage. Most resort to long pans of period paintings, or linger over photographs and sunsets, or throw in the occasional actors in period costume marching off to battle, along with talking heads. There's nothing wrong with that style (Ken Burns, the master of the genre, has a great new film on Prohibition coming in October). But this film takes a different approach, setting itself firmly in the contemporary world -- the world that Hamilton did so much to create.
Brookhiser travels from a prison in the Virgin Islands, where he chats with women who, like Hamilton's mother, are behind bars, to the People's Court for a re-enactment of one of Hamilton's famous law cases, to the hectic streets of New York City, pulsing with business. He and Bernard-Henri Levi play-act the meeting between Hamilton and Talleyrand. He chats with Larry Flynt about the sex scandal that nearly ended Hamilton's career, and with former gang members about the touchy matter of honor, which did end his life.
To appreciate Hamilton fully, it's necessary to set the stage, as Brookhiser and historian Ron Chernow do, explaining that after the Revolution, the United States was an economic cripple, deeply in debt, its currencies nearly worthless as a result of inflation.
"We were," says Chernow, "the deadbeat of world finance. We were like a Third World country." Hamilton steered the new republic toward solvency. (We could use him now!)
Unlike the other founders, Chernow notes, who had mainly "pre-capitalist worldviews" with a strong bias toward agriculture, and who tended to see commerce and manufacturing as "corrupting influences," Hamilton foresaw that the United States could become a great trading nation. From his earliest days in the St. Croix counting house, doing business with people from around the world speaking many languages, Hamilton understood that wealth is created by trade and commerce, not just from the soil.
Hamilton was an economic wizard, but also a profound political philosopher, a deep-dyed patriot, a gifted administrator who served as Washington's informal "prime minister" during the first president's term -- and also a human being with weaknesses and foibles. He spoke brilliantly, the film reminds us, but sometimes too much. He might have bitten his tongue a bit more on the subject of Vice President Aaron Burr. But he did not, and the film takes us, reluctantly but inexorably, to the dueling ground at Weehawken, N.J., where we feel anew that day's terrible toll.