P.T. Barnum, as it turns out, coined the term “middle class.” He came up with the bait and switch. He was a pioneer in public relations, inventing the press conference. Director Simon Wincer’s biography of Barnum would have us believe a lot of things about “the greatest showman on Earth,” so much so that P.T. himself would be proud of this two-part entertaining ride.
A&E has expanded the “Biography” franchise with this elaborate biopic, with writer Lionel Chetwynd painting a long and detailed portrait of both the business and family man. But even at four hours, it can only briefly highlight Barnum’s many accomplishments.
Phineas Taylor Barnum (P.T. to his friends — and just about everyone was a friend) represented the American dream in the truest capitalist sense. In his lifetime, Barnum built and lost fortunes, was charitable yet shrewd, exploitative and concerned. Beyond what we already know of his instinctive business acumen and public relations skill, Chetwynd and Wincer skillfully convey the determination and drive needed for such a visionary and the unlimited patience required of those who loved him.
A young shopkeeper from Connecticut, Barnum (Beau and Jordan Bridges) had a love affair with New York and saw endless possibilities in making his fortune there. Supposedly, Barnum never said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but he certainly knew how to separate a man from his coin. When he purchased Scudder’s American Museum, he created a showcase for the odd and absurd.
While touting his wilier skills, the film manages to avoid the exploration of any possible exploitation by Barnum of his many human “exhibits.” Some would argue that he found a purpose and career for various social outcasts and the film makes a point of his close relationship with Charles Stratton (Josh Ryan Evans), the diminutive man Barnum renamed Tom Thumb. Thumb made Barnum a fortune by touring the U.S. and Europe, and Thumb shared in the revenue stream.
According to the pic, however, Barnum, did not always give such a fair shake to his family, reneging on promises that always put business first.
Jordan and his dad, Beau, make a wonderful tag team. Jordan captures the unbridled enthusiasm of the young entrepreneur; Beau exudes the guile and strength that comes from experience. Cynthia Dale, as Barnum’s wife, Charity, has the thankless role of a spouse who only sees her husband long enough to complain about never seeing him, but manages to make these scenes powerful. Other secondary perfs including Henry Czerny, Charles Martin Smith and a tanless George Hamilton make colorful additions to the cast.
This first-rate production is enhanced by the detailed sets of Paul Peters and costume design by Nicoletta Massone. Music by Hummie Mann is rousing and festive in the grand tradition of John Philip Sousa and a perfect fit to the circuslike atmosphere of the story.