Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Murder of a President (American Experience - PBS)

A successful documentary makes researchers of its audience -- you want to know more and should be inspired to seek additional information about the subject, if nothing more than venturing a few click-and-point Wikipedia searches.  By this standard, PBS documentary about James Garfield, The Murder of a President, succeeds. The 100 minute program flies by without longuers and the terrain covered is mostly terra incognito -- the Gilded Age, a period in American history somewhere between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson and, generally, I think, poorly understood by most viewers.  Before tuning into this show, I knew very little about James Garfield -- indeed, I think my knowledge was limited to an old Believe it or Not cartoon that I saw as a boy:  Alexander Graham Bell's prototype metal detector failed to find the lead slug poisoning poor Garfield because the iron springs in his bedstead confounded the instrument, an assertion that the documentary doesn't make, focusing instead on the sinister Dr. Bliss and his medical malpractice.  For my ignorance, the show substituted a procession of miracles and wonders, stuff so improbable that you couldn't make it up.

Garfield was raised in wracking poverty -- unlike other great men, he didn't romanticize his miserable boyhood and very reasonably thought that his early hardships had been a grave impediment to his success and not a spur to later fame.  With her life savings, Garfield's mother financed one quarter of college for her son (tuition and board was $17).  Garfield was so astonishingly brilliant that after a couple of years at Case-Western, he was promoted from janitor (working for his tuition) to a full professor of literature and ancient languages.  He married, a match that seems to have been unhappy until he engaged in an extra-marital affair, confessed his transgression, and, then, revived his love for his wife, Lucretia.  Of course, he fought with distinction in the Civil War and was elected, without campaigning and while at the Front, as an Ohio Senator.  (Garfield didn't want to leave the battlefield, but Lincoln told him he had enough generals and that he needed more senators.)  Garfield's uncanny luck continued through 1880 when he delivered an oration at the Republican nominating convention in Chicago, impressed the delegates, and, then, was drafted as the presidential candidate to break a deadlock -- on the first 32 ballots Garfield received less than five votes; he had fifty votes on the 33rd ballot and 399 on the 34th.  Elected to the presidency, he served only 200 days when he was shot in the back by a deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau.  Abruptly enough, Garfield's luck changed -- one might say he was lucky until he wasn't.  Garfield's medical treatment was entrusted Dr. Bliss, a vicious quack, who essentially murdered the president by his ministrations.  Bliss had been a wound doctor in the Civil War and didn't believe in the "germ" theory of disease -- indeed, he felt that sepsis was a sign of recovery.  As a result, Garfield's wound suppurated and the President rotted away from within; unable to keep down anything but milk, Garfield was fed by rectal infusions of rich food (things like beef broth and eggs laced with opium).  The last third of the documentary details Garfield's slow-motion slaughter by Bliss and it is nightmarish -- the viewer learns about such aspects of Gilded Age medicine as "nutritious enemata," "laudable pus," and "pus cavities."  Ultimately, Garfield demanded that he be transported to the New Jersey coast so that he could die in a room in his beach house overlooking the sea.  The wounded president was transported by train and, by this time, regarded as a martyred saint -- crowds strew the railroad tracks with straw to soften Garfield's ride and two-thousand volunteers laid the last couple miles of track to the cottage door; when the train stalled on a steep gradient near the beach house, the multitudes simply pushed the cars uphill.  The last part of the movie contrasts Garfield's protracted death with the imprisonment and execution of Charles Guiteau, his assassin.  Guiteau was a bizarre figure, probably a paranoid schizophrenic in the grip of tertiary syphilis.  Abused as a child for his stammer, Guiteau compensated by becoming an orator and claimed that an obscure speech that he had delivered had catapaulted Garfield to the presidency -- in fact, Guiteau was the paradigmatic loner assassin, afflicted by delusions of grandeur; he was a sort of refugee from the Oneida commune in New York, a place where free love via coitus interruptus was practiced, although the talking heads that comment on the action note that Guiteau was so hapless, that even at Oneida, he couldn't get laid.  Garfield was apparently an advocate for equal voting rights for freed slaves and, at one point, the Fisk Jubilee Singers serenaded him at his home; Frederick Douglas endorsed him for President.  The film suggests that Garfield was, in today's parlance, "an uniter and not a divider", and that he was a champion for the working man, an enemy of the so-called Stalwart wing of his Republican party, the Gilded Age robber barons representing what we call today "the one percent."  PBS is much condemned on the Right for supporting liberal policy by encoding that agenda in its works -- Ken Burns specializes in advancing the policies of the liberal Democrats in his documentaries.  This film, made in the manner of Burns by Rob Rapley, is no exception -- the film ends with the mantra that Garfield supported "equality of opportunity," suggesting that the hero was a sort of proto-Bernie Sanders.  (Indeed, the notion of the brokered convention resulting in Garfield's nomination seems attractive to the film-makers.) 

The documentary is not without serious flaws.  For some reason, the film makers have tarted-up the production with period reconstructions -- probably about a third of the documentary consists of actors in costume acting out scenes on sets furnished with period details.  The show begins with a tawdry exploitative sequence -- Garfield's assassination and, then, a gory scene in which his wound is probed with metal sounds while the poor actor playing the wounded president has to bellow and writhe in pain.  It's unpleasant, undignified, and, essentially, meretricious -- PBS can't compete with Game of Thrones and so shouldn't try.  Furthermore, the period reconstructions are distracting -- you end up comparing the features of the actors with the photographic images of the actual personages involved.  None of the actors can summon the intelligent ferocity shown in the eyes of the protagonists as depicted in their 19th century photographs -- Guiteau's face blazes with zealotry and Garfield has the gaze of a gunfighter.  (He also has a remarkable beard that seems comprised of steel wires or, in some pictures, looks as if it were sculpted in bronze over the lower half of his face.)  Only Paul Giamatti could successfully play Garfield and he's not in the show and, therefore, the period reenactments are unsuccessful -- I thought that the protracted scenes showing Garfield's death agony were like, most sex scenes,  at once gratuitous, implausible, and tasteless.  The documentary, based on a book by Candace Millard, draws parallels between Guiteau and Garfield that are, perhaps, farfetched -- Garfield survived a near-drowning on the Erie Canal and emerged from the experience thinking that providence had spared him for greatness; Guiteau survived the fiery wreck of the Stonington, a collision between a steamer and a ferry in the Long Island Sound and, also, felt that his life had been spared for an apocalyptic destiny.  The show also needs villains -- VP Chester Arthur, a strangely soft and girlish-looking plutocrat, is portrayed as the puppet of the sinister and corrupt Roscoe Conklin, a New York politician representing the cabal of Robber Barons called the Stalwarts.  Several confrontations are staged between Garfield and Conklin, the Trump-style bad guy, and these are replete with baroque and sinister threats -- you have the sense that these scenes belong in Billions or The Wolf of Wall Street.  Ken Burns' style documentaries are immensely long and Garfield's amazing life doesn't really fit into the 100 minute format -- there are strange and unsettling lacunae in the story:  we don't know the Democratic candidate for President that Garfield defeats and there is no accounting for the 15 years between 1865 and 1880 -- what was our hero doing in that period?  Finally, we don't know for sure what happens to Chester Arthur or his Machiavellian master, Roscoe Conklin -- it is suggested that the office emboldened Arthur to defy Conklin but this seems too convenient to me.  Notwithstanding, these defects The Murder of a President is thoroughly fascinating and highly recommended.   

No comments:

Post a Comment