The founding fathers receive the “Vikings” treatment in “Sons of Liberty,” a six-hour miniseries that History channel will air over successive nights. Produced by Stephen David Entertainment – best known for heavily re-enacted docu-hybrids, like “The World Wars” – this scripted production is clearly intended to bring history to life, but sometimes at the cost (with apologies to Sam Adams) of feeling a bit too much like a beer commercial. Although generally interesting and handsomely done, the program isn’t without its excesses, and some of the liberties taken here, creatively and historically, have little to do with the price of tea.
Billed as a “dramatic interpretation of events,” “Sons of Liberty” opens in 1765, with Sam Adams (Ben Barnes of “The Chronicles of Narnia”) being sought by British soldiers. Drunk and unshaven, he has run afoul of Massachusetts’ governor for refusing to collect all the taxes the Crown considers its due from his fellow colonists.
At first, Adams’ resistance is chided by John Hancock (Rafe Spall), Boston’s wealthiest resident. While sympathetic to Adams’ objectives, Hancock rather stiffly says of the tumult his compatriot is causing, “All this violence, and unrest, it is bad for business.”
As the resistance grows, the British dispatch Gen. Gage (Marton Csokas) to crush the nascent rebellion, bringing with him an attractive but ill-treated wife (Emily Berrington) who instantly strikes up an, er, friendship with Dr. Joseph Warren (“The Blacklist’s” Ryan Eggold), to whom she eventually begins leaking information. Mrs. Gage’s espionage is, apparently, the subject of some historical debate, but the producers don’t present the theory with any caveats.
Directed by Kari Skogland from a script by David, David C. White and Kirk Ellis, “Sons of Liberty” is an uneven affair. In his efforts to portray Gage in a manner that’s appropriately villainous, for example, Csokas is menacing and ruthless, yes, but at times seems to be channeling Boris Karloff. That includes ordering a flogging that’s delivered in slow-motion for a duration that would be blessed by “The Passion of the Christ.”
The action, not surprisingly, picks up considerably on the third and final night, with the full-scale outbreak of hostilities. Yet while those sequences are mounted with scope and considerable grit (seeking to preserve a lot of dead presidents, the project was shot in Romania), the exaggerated sense of drama – including the aforementioned and repeated use of slow mo – grows a bit tedious.
With Barnes commanding center stage (he’s a lot more handsome than the guy on those beer labels), other recognizable faces turn up in what, at least for these purposes, are relatively minor roles: Jason O’Mara as George Washington, Dean Norris as Ben Franklin, Michael Raymond-James as Paul Revere, and Henry Thomas as John Adams. (In terms of pushing the envelope, incidentally, the characters say “bulls–t” a lot, although to be fair, these were more agrarian times.)
Clearly, the project represents a major investment for History, which even enlisted blockbuster movie composer Hans Zimmer to create the show’s memorable and rousing theme. Still, this gauzy approach to the American Revolution can’t help but feel a trifle watered down in a “90210” kind of way, as if dispensing a spoonful of sugar – or perhaps more appropriately, a pint of winter ale – to help the history go down.