Review: ‘Benjamin Franklin’ Is Most Engaging When It’s Trying to Solve a Puzzle

Benjamin Franklin portrait
Review
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

How did such a staunch monarchist become a leader of the American Revolution? This question is the driving force in Ken Burns’ latest documentary on revered Founding Father and celebrated inventor Benjamin Franklin. The four-hour event is most engaging whenever it’s endeavoring to solve that puzzle.

Tonight’s Part 1, “Join or Die,” can be yawn-inducing as it dryly maneuvers through Franklin’s rise as a skilled printer, voracious reader and brilliant writer, especially without the advantage of archival footage and witness interviews that enliven some of Burns’ more recent films. But Tuesday’s conclusion of Benjamin Franklin, “An American,” benefits from a far more specific focus on the commencement of the Revolution.

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The momentum is nonstop as Franklin’s patience for the disrespect exhibited by Britain runs out, and he returns from London to Philadelphia to throw his whole self into the fledgling nation—even if it means being on opposite sides of the war from his own son William, royal governor of New Jersey. The doc unflinchingly addresses other contradictions, from Franklin’s ownership of slaves as he fights for the Colonies’ independence to how he considered sophisticated flirtations with Parisian women acts of diplomacy while courting France’s allegiance in the battle.

Insights from prominent historians and biographers like Walter Isaacson break up the monotony of Peter Coyote’s narration, as does a star-studded vocal cast, including Mandy Patinkin as Franklin and Paul Giamatti reprising his Emmy-winning role of John Adams. That fellow negotiator wasn’t impressed with Franklin’s fascinating tactics. You will be.

Benjamin Franklin, Documentary Premiere 8/7c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)