PBS’ ‘Robert E. Lee’ Doesn’t Break Much Ground

Given that some Southern politicians seem motivated to recast the Civil War in heroic terms — a battle for states’ rights against an oppressive federal government, never mind the whole slavery thing — you might think that the latest “American Experience” documentary, “Robert E. Lee,” would be zestier than it is.

Produced by Mark Zwonitzer and premiering Jan. 3, this 90-minute production dutifully recounts Lee’s life and battlefield heroics without really adding much depth to the subject matter. The most interesting aspect, actually — even more so than Lee’s military acumen, after the initial Confederate naysaying about his tactics — is how the general was deified after his death in 1870 for his profound religious faith and gentlemanly manner, as much as his martial accomplishments. In a way, that feels like the most timely element given the impulse to use the 150th anniversary of the war’s outbreak to reassert that much of red-state America is very unhappy to have a Democrat currently in the White House.

As a Los Angeles Times feature about the project observed, Lee does emerge as a “tormented figure,” who motivated his troops but also saw them suffer horrific casualty levels. But despite his symbolic significance in relation to the war and particularly its aftermath, he’s not an especially compelling one.

“I find Lee the guy a really fascinating, important figure, and one worth knowing,” Zwonitzer told the Times. “And I don’t think the myth of Lee — which was used to whitewash the reason for this war — is half as interesting.”

Although this is a stately production that happily eschews dramatic recreations, I had hoped to find “Robert E. Lee” more fascinating — and interesting — than I did.

 

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