Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton
by HERBERT LONDON
April 12, 2011
It may be hard to believe but Alexander Hamilton lives. He lives in a brilliant documentary biopic directed and produced by Michael Pack and written and hosted by Richard Brookhiser. This documentary recaptures Hamilton’s birth in Nevis, his military exploits in Yorktown, his fiscal policies on Wall Street and his duel on the Palisades of the Hudson River.
Hamilton was a man for all seasons and in keeping with his versatility the film features themes that shaped and molded Hamilton’s extraordinary life.
As America’s first Treasury Secretary Hamilton saved a debt-ridden nation from bankruptcy by establishing the legitimacy of the dollar. To test this hypothesis the filmmakers interviewed a contemporary Treasury Secretary. As one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers which set the stage for the Constitution, Hamilton created the legal and political architecture for the new nation. In keeping with their desire for a contemporary flair, the host interviewed a Supreme Court Justice to get his take on the Federalist Papers.
Hamilton was a man of great passion as evidenced by this illicit love affair and provoking the Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr into a duel which ultimately cost his life.
It is instructive and clever that the host interviewed gang members in an effort to discover the consequences of disrespect. The comments prove to be insightful and illuminating.
As I see it, this film is a model for a documentary style that links the past to the present. Hamilton isn’t merely a Founding Father, he is with us on the Columbia campus, at the New York Post, at Washington’s side and in the inner sanctum of government.
The Pack-Brookhiser film breathes with freshness. This is not a stuffy history that recounts 18th century America. It is an American tale that is timeless set against a backdrop in which the present reaches back to find clues about the past.
Statues are ghosts of the past, reminders of history. But a film that shines on the present to discover antecedents, lives. The pornographers, prisoners, warriors and calypso singers discuss money, rights, privilege, honor, sex and battle. They offer voice to the episodes in Hamilton’s colorful life and texture for the decisions Hamilton made.
Hamilton was Washington’s amanuensis, his confidente. He recorded what the Father of Our Nation said and did. Yet he was more than a secretary; he was a guide and a leader. With that thought in mind the filmmakers plumb the depths of human experience to understand leadership and kindred souls who work together for a common goal, in this case the establishment of a new nation.
Alexander Hamilton was a quintessential New Yorker. From the Hudson to the East River, from the Battery to Harlem, Hamilton had a presence on every acre of Manhattan. Wall Street pays obeisance to him every day and the Caribbean islands where he was born and was raised convey rhythm Hamilton delivered to his adopted land.
Hamilton did not die a rich man, although he could have used his position to enrich himself. He was a man of integrity who set the temperament for a great nation. The spirit of exceptionalism that I believe still resides in the United States was the gift Hamilton and his confreres gave to the new nation. That spirit, that idiosyncratic sense of liberty, is what inspired this film and what makes it such a dramatic achievement.