'Sons of Liberty' takes a few too many liberties on History

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
'Sons of Liberty' on History takes a few too many liberties with history to be taken seriously

Seven years ago, the History Channel became just plain History, a single-word name being perceived, one supposes, as hipper, more youthful, like Common or Fergie.

If the network executives were as interested in accuracy as hipness, they would have changed the name to the Dramatic Interpretation of History Channel. Or maybe just Assassin's Creed, though I suppose there would be copyright issues.

Also, the creators of the "Assassin's Creed" game series often appear to be more fastidious in their research.

With a few notable exceptions ("Hatfields and McCoys"), recent programming on History has targeted the gaming-system generation, or at least the network's perception of it. Low on rigorous scholarship, history on History is high on blood-splatter and anachronistically modern sexuality. While this can be great fun in fictionalized shows — who knows, maybe the view of early Norse life in "Vikings" is how it really was, sort of, with fewer six-pack abs and more disease — it becomes problematic when the time period is better known to its audience.

You would not believe the blizzard of angry and detailed emails I got protesting many factual inaccuracies in the docudrama miniseries "The Two World Wars."

Heaven knows what those viewers are going to do with "Sons of Liberty," a three-night, six-hour version of certain events leading up to the American Revolution.

The same company that gave us "The Two World Wars" seems intent on creating an entertaining but historically "whatevs" companion to HBO's gloriously fastidious "John Adams." "Sons of Liberty" skips all the boring stuff (the years of political debate and grass-roots organization) to focus on the Big Events, all seen through the eyes of that other revolutionary A-dog, Sam Adams.

You know, the one on the beer bottle. And beer plays a very key role in "Sons of Liberty"; early patriots spend far more time hoisting a pint than they do, say, writing innumerable political essays for Boston's five newspapers or organizing and running town meetings, or forming the committee of correspondence system that led to the creation of the Continental Congress.

Which in "Sons of Liberty" appears to simply spring into existence so Sam can persuade them to deliver a Declaration of Independence. But whatevs.

Instead of history's Sam Adams — a widowed then remarried father of two, Harvard-educated, deeply religious and philosophical, so devoted to politics his family often lived in poverty — "Prince Caspian's" Ben Barnes plays Adams as a black-sheep charm boy, his heart broken by the death of his young wife and the horrors of British tyranny, which no one else seems to understand.

(On the plus side, he is able to maintain the carefully groomed beard scruff that is now cinematic shorthand for "rebel.")

His compatriots are likewise shaped for easy viewing. John Hancock (Rafe Spall) is a business-obsessed fop who only joins the Cause when it becomes clear he can no longer make money. Joseph Warren ("The Blacklist's" Ryan Eggold) is an idealistic young doctor drawn by Adams' courage and the hotness of the nasty British general's wife (more on that later); Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) is a cool guy who lets them use his silver shop as a base of operations.

Many of the other early patriots are never mentioned, though cousin John Adams (Henry Thomas) shows up now and then, all stuffy and missing the point (the British are Terrible!), to first admonish Sam for breaking the law and then persuade him to work with the Continental Congress even though they just want to waste time talking.

As for the cause, well, despite most of these men being accomplished and frequent orators, it is never articulated beyond general anger at taxes and tyranny — in a scene toward the end, Benjamin Franklin (Dean Norris, clearly having the time of his life) points out that that the only real option is to form a new nation and everyone looks astonished. Until then, any concept of "self-governance" seems to consist solely of making life difficult for the occupying British forces.

Who are all uniformly despicable, especially Gen. Gage (Marton Csokas), sent in to control Adams and his gang after the Boston tea party.

Gage is a personally sadistic tyrant of the first order — his young American wife, Margaret (Emily Berrington), the lone female in "Sons of Liberty," is driven by unhappiness into an affair with Warren and gives him the tip that leads to Revere's ride. (Margaret Gage as the source of the tip has some historical validity, the affair not so much. Whatevs.)

Writers Stephen David, David C. White and Kirk Ellis don't bother explaining the many laws and policies that caused people like Adams to organize and agitate — presumably the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts seem too much like school. Instead "The Sons of Liberty" focuses the big action — the smuggling done to get goods past the British forces, the Boston tea party, the Boston massacre, Revere's famous ride, the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill.

All of which are powerfully rendered and very effective. The murder of a young boy during a spontaneous uprising and its galvanizing affect on the city is particularly moving, as is the Battle of Bunker Hill. A shot of the young British troops as they march toward the hill where, as their leaders know, many will be slaughtered before it is taken, offers a very rare reminder of the British lives lost during the Revolution.

At its best, "The Sons of Liberty" captures in admirable detail the cleverness of the rebels, in their smuggling efforts and ability to amass and hide guns and ammunition, their personal bravery and astonishing commitment to a long-odds pursuit.

If only their intelligence and ideology had been given the same, or indeed any, attention. The real revolution was not a colonial nation's revolt against the restrictive laws and occupying forces of a far-off monarchy but the desire to replace it with a democracy. Adams and the Sons of Liberty were men of action, but they were also men of amazing ideas, careful thought and continual open debate, all of which are needed to affect significant social and political change.

And that's what's really cool about history.


'Sons of Liberty'

Where: History

When: 9 p.m. Sunday; also Monday-Tueday

Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

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