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'Henry Ford' review: Had drive, gets breaks

PBS' "American Experience" does a portrait of industrialist

PBS' "American Experience" does a portrait of industrialist Henry Ford, airing at 9 p.m. Jan. 29 on PBS. Credit: Handout

THE SHOW "Henry Ford" on PBS' "American Experience"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Born in the middle of the Civil War, Henry Ford -- farm boy, tinkerer, genius who would become obsessed with control, particularly the control of people and time -- would launch the most successful car line in history (the Model T) via history's greatest manufacturing innovation, the assembly line. He became a hero of the working man when he gave his employees $5 per day -- a princely sum that ended ruinous worker turnover. However, he later feuded bitterly with the United Auto Workers. Ford would also publish and distribute a vicious anti-Semitic newspaper, the Dearborn Independent (which promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- a hoax that purported a plan for Jewish global domination). Produced by veteran filmmaker Sarah Colt, "Henry Ford" also explores the fraught relationship between father and son Edsel.

MY SAY There are a few obvious choices a filmmaker could make in exploring the life and vast legacy of Henry Ford -- including as an anti-Semite who inspired Hitler and may have aided the Nazi war effort; or as a flawed giant of American industry who changed the world as much as Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs. Colt's portrait follows the second path, and the result is an efficiently told story that covers vast territory, rarely pausing to more deeply explore his enormous accomplishments -- or shortcomings. In a two-hour film, that's almost certainly of necessity, although there are moments when a wider angle (or broader context) could have enriched this excellent portrait.

For example, how pervasive was anti-Semitism in 1920s America? Did Ford ignite it or was the fire already lit? How much did he inspire Hitler (or vice versa)? Those seem like valid questions, but they're not asked here. Colt's portrait is often compassionate and fair-minded (arguably to a fault), but the sheer accretion of detail paints a picture of someone not only in the grip of megalomania, but paranoia, isolation and finally dementia. She also never once loses sight of his singular human flaw -- that he was an avowed man of the people, and for the people, but who in the end wanted nothing to do with people, including his own son. In short, a populist antipopulist Citizen Ford.

BOTTOM LINE Excellent, engrossing, fair-minded and richly illustrated. Best of all -- there are no "historical re-creations."


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