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TV review: On PBS's 'Robert E. Lee,' a whole lotta man and a whole lotta battlefields

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 7:34 PM

It seems we have about four years of Civil War sesquicentennial stuff ahead of us, which is good news for history profs and reenactment dweebs, but what does it mean for television? Looking across the corpse-strewn field of Civil War documentaries that have come before, one doesn't yet see much hope of anyone outdoing Ken Burns's epic series of 1990. But there's plenty of time and plenty of work left to be done.

"Robert E. Lee," a sturdy new documentary from the folks at public television's "American Experience" series, airs Monday night, but it isn't much of a stirring opening salvo in retrospectives. To its credit, it exhibits an artfully taut, no-nonsense approach that relies on documents, drawings, paintings, photographs, experts and simple narration, all principally guided by the tiny type in its subtitle: "At War With His Country . . . and Himself." (I'm just relieved nowadays when these docs don't have B-list TV actors re-creating historical moments, and this one doesn't.)

Apparently not much new has happened to Lee's legacy while you and I were busy not paying attention to Civil War scholarship, at least judging from the content of "Robert E. Lee." We're met with no biographical bombshells, undiscovered offspring or recently unearthed documents. The film, by Mark Zwonitzer and Mark Samels, posits no groundbreaking theories about Lee's psychological state, interior life or military prowess. Lee still is what he always was to most of us: a statue, an address, an icon of the old (and new) South- and, to us good ol' boys who adored late-1970s prime-time schlock, a nickname for the muscle car in the "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Yet Lee's story remains a central and fascinating element of the great American conflict: Born in 1807 into the Virginia elite, this son of an Army colonel and Virginia governor was educated at West Point, where the grueling austerity and hard work instilled in him a lifelong adoration for discipline, obedience and honor. He served in the U.S. Army, building his reputation in campaigns through the Mexican interior. As a handsome young man, he successfully wooed and married one of the uppermost young women of Arlington society (Mary Custis, step-granddaughter to George Washington).

Then it goes a little wrong or a lot right - or a little right and a lot wrong. That one can take issue with how scholars portray Lee's decision in 1861 to resign his Army post and join the Confederacy is merely the first sigh in a long talk about unresolved vibes that lurk beneath history. Instead of another biography, I'd watch a thoughtful documentary about modern-day Southerners and the ways they revere their sainted General Lee, and I hope such projects are in the pipeline.

"Robert E. Lee" exhibits no ambivalence about the man or his decision to rebel. He was the picture of valor and yet he was wrong. The film summons forth a smattering of endowed-chair academics and other history professors - Civil War experts all - to explain how Lee backed the wrong side for the wrong reasons.

In short, he was a slavery apologist who let his own Old Dominion snobbery and sense of honor lead him to a righteous path of war. "He certainly never questioned the values of his class," history professor Michael Fellman observes. "He would talk about 'my people' . . . the white people of his social class, born to rule. His honor is involved in the defense of his 'people.' "

Complicated, ill-tempered, rigid, mean; entirely gray-haired just six months into the war; initially disrespected by his troops and reviled by the Confederate citizenry. But then tides turn - some battles are won - and the transformation begins, leading to defeat but also leading to immortality.

Yes, I've glossed over a lot (please don't hit send on the irate e-mails), and rest assured, "Robert E. Lee" moves at a much more reasonable pace. The doc is ready for Teach to pop it into the DVD player and take up two, perhaps three, days of fifth-period lesson plans. (With supplemental teaching material available online!)

But why not take a moment to think about what we want to see on TV about the Civil War between now and 2015? This could almost be an open letter to PBS, the History Channel and anyone else who feels up to the task.

As the anniversaries of this skirmish and that battle trundle through, I'm more eager to know of the domestic details of the 1860s, nuggets of everyday life on the periphery of the Civil War. In the 21st century, we are more emotionally and academically equipped to revisit the war era through the eyes of blacks, Native Americans and women. We are more able to have conversations about culture, fashion, food, song - all the things that exist on the margins.

To use "Robert E. Lee" for one handy example of what I'm looking for, it barely glimpses the life of Mary Custis Lee, who, for a number of reasons, sparked my interest this time - perhaps even more than my interest in her husband's role in the Civil War.

One of the film's more interesting, fleeting tangents quotes a letter from Lee scolding his daughters for attending too many social events while battles raged and tens of thousands of men died. This resonates in today's culture, in which so many Americans go off to fight a war on the other side of the world while the rest of us party on. (Lee's daughters seem to have a paid a price anyhow, remaining unmarried all their lives. Why was this? How about a documentary on that?)

"Robert E. Lee" should in no way have to shoulder this wish list in its concise 90 minutes. It's a nice appetizer. Lee, we can all agree, was a whole lotta man.

Yet it would be a shame to squander the sesquicentennial on too many trips to the same old battlefields to reexamine well-documented troop movements; to spend more time quoting the letters sent to and from Richmond; to enumerate body counts and reassess failed strategies once more. How come the Civil War always has so much guy stuff, military stuff, white stuff? Doesn't it belong to all Americans by now?

Robert E. Lee (90 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT.

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