The first in a new series of historical documentaries under the “Empires” banner, “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization” provides a slickly packaged history lesson complete with elaborate computer graphics. Covering 100 turbulent years that set the stage for Western culture, docu focuses on a few prominent players of the time to tell the story of the small city of Athens, which rose to greatness as an imperial power and then quickly overstepped its bounds. It’s appropriate material for a Greek tragedy, which, of course, was one of Athens’ many lasting contributions.
Split into three segments, docu begins with “The Revolution,” which leads up to the overthrow of Athens’ aristocratic government in 508 B.C.
Primary protagonist here is Cleisthenes, a member of the city’s elite who was raised with the heroic stories of Homer and took the earliest opportunity to seize power before being banished himself.
After a popular revolt, Cleisthenes was recalled from exile to form the world’s first democracy. An intriguing and under-recognized figure, Cleisthenes found a way to give everyday citizens a voice in governance by devising a system of voting using pebbles.
The film returns frequently to very life-like digital images of Cleisthenes and other central figures, without ever mentioning exactly how such detail was determined and the degree of its accuracy.
Entertainment value does seem to dominate here over documentation, although the interviewed scholars give effectively succinct and convincing commentary.
The newfangled visual approach works best in the second segment, “The Golden Age.” Threatened with invasion by the powerful Persians, Athens is led to victory by Themistocles, a commoner-cum-general who convinces the citizens to abandon the city in order to save it.
Writer-director Cassian Harrison does a very nice job giving viewers a sense of what it might have been like to watch Athens burn. War scenes are less effectively depicted, although the story-telling remains clear and dramatic.
Under the rule of Pericles, Athens is rebuilt in full glory, and docu uses computer graphics to imagine the inside of the architecturally brilliant Parthenon, where those who entered would be greeted by a 40-foot statue of goddess Athena.
Perhaps because so much that is essential to Western culture happened in such a short period of time, this segment feels a bit sketchy towards the end. A timeline to keep track of exactly what happened when would have been helpful.
Third and final segment is entitled “Empire of the Mind.” After achieving a Mediterranean empire in less than a century, Athens quickly found itself enmeshed in an unwinnable war with its rival city-state, Sparta.
Sparta had the greater army, but Athens boasted a dominant naval force, and for years the two powers battled to a standstill. But as plague entered the walled-off city of Athens and an unnecessary battle devastated their fleet, the world’s first democracy was put to the test and failed, disintegrating into mob rule.
Only the level-headed Socrates attempted to stand up against the tide, and he was put to death for his efforts. Shots of the actual small pottery pieces used to hold the hemlock for executions carry a strong visual force.
Once Athens was forced to surrender, the city found that its greatest export became not goods but ideas, and the martyred Socrates was ultimately transformed into the new model for the heroic figure.
A bit over-produced and occasionally heavy-handed, “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization” is ultimately very effective in putting forth an educational tale in a dramatic fashion.
Liam Neeson’s narration is nicely done, but the stentorian music becomes a distraction. Next up in the “Empires” series will be docus on Islam, Napoleon, the Roman Empire and the British Empire.