If the past is indeed prologue, the first two hours of PBS’ seven-hour exploration of the Great Depression weave a cautionary tale that could as easily have focused today on Ross Perot as Henry Ford, and on Ronald Reagan and George Bush as Herbert Hoover. History keeps repeating itself; the trick is in breaking the chain. And only the citizenry seems willing to try.
The first part of “The Great Depression” opens with the perfect image: Henry Ford skating. Like all demagogues, he failed to understand just how thin the ice was below him.
The symbol of power in an era when captains of industry were mightier than presidents and kings, Ford may not have been singlehandedly responsible for pushing the nation into economic chaos, but his profligacy, his paranoia and his patronization — all bound by a nutshell of personal greed and disdain for the common man — certainly helped clear a path toward the brink of the abyss.
Once that brink was reached, a sad combination of bad weather, bad leadership and the unwillingness of government to step in to help or at least shift away from its reliance on unregulated industry and trickle-down economics turned the unthinkable into the inevitable.
The images of devastation are as remarkable as they are unforgettable. Soup lines. Hungry faces. Hopelessness in the eyes of children. Anger in the eyes of men. And insouciance in the bearing of the nation’s leaders as the American engine seized around them.
This is where “The Great Depression” finds its strength, in its depiction of the people and the internal resolve they drew upon to survive and prevail. This is no dry rehashing of history; the people come first.
Told through powerful archival footage and the poignant memories of those who lived through it, the opening installments of “The Great Depression,” assembled by the team responsible for the multi-award-winning “Eyes on the Prize,” is powerful television. If “A Job at Ford’s” begins slowly, the scope of the project as a whole allows it the luxury of time to put the precursors to Hard Times in perspective.
Ford is presented as the complex man he was: A genius with vision who was ultimately blinded by his own bigotry and avarice. He changed the way America works, but he couldn’t change himself, and his disdain for thosewho worked under him contrastsstarkly with the dignity of those workers who were forced to bond together simply to survive.
“The Road to Rock Bottom” moves more quickly, as the events that marked the first years of the Depression — bank failures, farm failures, mortgage foreclosures, mass hunger and Hoovervilles — gather momentum.
Hoover is portrayed as a presidential Pollyanna who trusted that charity alone could make things better; until FDR began to change direction, the United States was the only Western industrial power with no safety nets for unemployment, relief and social security.
The second hour ends with a detailed and riveting account of the veterans’ march on Washington in search of the bonuses promised them after World War I. The march brought the Depression into the government’s back yard, and Hoover’s decision to break it up with troops led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who believed he was a law unto himself, paved the way for Roosevelt’s ascension by a landslide.
As one witness movingly recalls, it was hard for her to believe that “the richest country in the world couldn’t do a better job in caring for its people.” The images of “The Great Depression” serve as a bittersweet reminder of how much has changed since, and how much hasn’t.