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'Grant' review: Winning portrait of the general and president

Justin Salinger stars as Civil War general and

Justin Salinger stars as Civil War general and eventual 18th U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant in the History channel's "Grant." Credit: HISTORY / Joe Alblas

MINISERIES "Grant"

WHEN|WHERE Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on History

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This three-night docudrama is adapted from historian Ron Chernow's mammoth (1,104 pages) and acclaimed 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, with dramatic recreations — English actor Justin Salinger stars as the Civil War general who leads the North to victory — and commentary, including by Chernow himself. "Grant'' argues that Grant — once among the most famous people in the world — is now largely forgotten. Night One covers the battle of Shiloh; Night Two, Vicksburg through to the Wilderness; and Night Three, the war's conclusion and the presidency. 

MY SAY "Grant" pitches itself as a TV event that will finally restore the subject to his rightful place in history. Forgotten no more! After three nights, viewers will finally even know who's buried in Grant's Tomb.

But the case for a reevaluation may be slightly overstated. If casual viewers know anything about the Civil War, they know two names — Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Lee's may be the more venerated, at least in the South, but Grant's is the more compelling. As "Grant" points out, both were exceedingly aggressive generals, but Grant was the one saddled with the "butcher" reputation. As consolation, "Grant" at least restores the other reputation, as an effective and often inspired battlefield tactician. 

What matters most over these three nights is the stretch dealing with his presidency. As 18th POTUS, Grant followed perhaps the worst president in American history. Andrew Johnson willfully reversed the gains of African Americans, then Grant willfully reversed Johnson: As "Grant" establishes, he neutered the Ku Klux Klan, restored voting rights for blacks, and oversaw their resurgence in political office during his first term. Chernow calls this presidency a "heroic" one, which is the best way to remember Grant — also the best way to wrap the series. 

Except we already know how it will wrap. His presidency became mired in corruption, through no direct fault of his own, and the electorate abandoned Reconstruction. That's the memory that does endure. 

"Grant" also says that the so-called "Lost Cause" narrative of the Civil War has infected historic perspective in the years since, at Grant's expense. ("Lost Cause?" That misty-eyed nonsense that the Civil War was fought over "states' rights" and not over slavery.) That may seem a bit too simplistic — at least as presented here — but "Grant" does make the more important point: He was a champion of Reconstruction. Heroic indeed. 

As a viewing experience, "Grant" is often engaging. While the docudrama dialogue can be clunky — the common fault of these things — the battle scenes are much better. All those cliches of Civil War narratives — the bodies stacked like cordwood, the bullets like hail — are made vivid here. War is hell, all right.

Salinger's ("Ripper Street") Grant is good, too. His eyes capture what Grant must have felt: Unbearable sadness yoked to ironclad resolution.

BOTTOM LINE A winner.


 

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