Hamilton's America Has Its Eyes on History

The PBS documentary is less a behind-the-scenes glimpse than a social primer on why Broadway’s biggest smash matters.

PBS / Courtesy of NYSE

About seven minutes into the PBS documentary Hamilton’s America, George W. Bush shows up to comment on Alexander Hamilton finally getting his due in the American public consciousness.

“That’s the way history works,” Bush says into the camera. “Sometimes it takes a while for people to give you credit.”

He delivers the line with a pause mid-sentence and a glint in the eye, seeming to relish that he’ll be interpreted as talking about himself as much as he’s talking about the $10 founding father. There are a lot of similar moments in Hamilton’s America, which almost concerns itself more with American history and present-day politics than it does with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash.

The PBS documentary—directed by Alex Horwitz with Miranda and Hamilton honcho Jeffrey Sellers among the executive producers—has been hyped as a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of a production that’s sold out for the foreseeable future. There are indeed passages fans will gobble up, as when Miranda’s seen workshopping lyrics in Aaron Burr’s actual bedroom. For anyone locked out of the Hamilton stage phenomenon but obsessed with the cast album, the doc’s performance snippets will be manna; I, for example, didn’t realize till now that the founding fathers actually take a shot of alcohol during “My Shot.”

But the film, primarily, is neither a behind-the-scenes reveal nor a sampler of the stage production. Instead, it’s a crash course on why Hamilton matters at all. Miranda & co. seem to be polishing their own legacy already, addressing some pervasive criticisms of the play and lending authority to some of the most glowing appraisals of it. Michelle Obama at one point calls Hamilton her favorite work of art by anyone ever. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of The Public Theater (where the show was birthed), argues that Miranda is the best historical playwright since Shakespeare.

The naysayers against Hamilton have been comparably few, but they’ve triggered debate about the show’s politics and accuracy—especially about the notion that racism and slavery are minimized in Hamilton’s buoyant multicultural reimagining of the American Revolution and its aftermath. But the documentary mentions slavery repeatedly, with frank acknowledgements that the characters in the musical were not wholly good people. Daveed Diggs, who plays Thomas Jefferson, has the money quote on the subject: “You don’t have to separate these things with Jefferson. He can have written this incredible document and several incredible documents with things that we all believe in, and he sucks.”

Other Hamilton detractors have complained that the show doesn’t engage more deeply with the economic debate at the heart of the conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson. But the PBS special devotes a surprising amount of time to financial policy, which might have gotten more substantial treatment in the play were there not the imperative to, as Miranda puts it, “get you out before Les Mis gets out next door.” At one point, he and the actor Chris Jackson (George Washington) tour the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with the financial journalist Maria Bartiromo. Elizabeth Warren praises Hamilton but also testifies that “the problem was, Hamilton was the ultimate elitist,” while Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner show up to express their admiration.

The thread binding all of these topics and others drawn from history is less Hamilton than Miranda himself, though he makes a number of comparisons between his own life and Hamilton’s that would seem to welcome a collapsing of the two individuals in the public’s mind. Watching the documentary reminds that Hamilton’s success isn’t in transcending Broadway musicals but in being the best, giddiest version of them—here embodied in Miranda’s tendency to unapologetically quote his own work and suddenly break into rapping or singing. Some people will be turned off by that, just as some people can’t get past the inherent corniness in Hamilton to appreciate its many pleasures. But the quality of Miranda’s work and its resonance with larger issues, both well on display in Hamilton’s America, makes it hard to do anything but admire his confidence—he knows exactly what it means to have history’s eyes on him.