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By Phil Hall | July 2, 2008

Mark Zwontizer’s documentary, originally seen as part of PBS’ “American Experience” series, details the life and writing of Walt Whitman, who is identified here as “America’s first great poet.” That’s quite a subjective statement, to be certain (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was no slouch when it came to connecting rhymes), and perhaps that is typical of this production loose presentation of facts.

Whitman was the product of an emotionally and economically dysfunctional Long Island farming family. Pulled out of school in a vain attempt to keep the family’s operation flourishing, he somehow managed to start a career as a New York journalist. Yet the film never explains how the barely-educated Whitman was able to achieve the skills to become a writer. The film details how he was fired from multiple newspaper jobs, but it never explains why he would keep getting hired if he had a reputation for irresponsible behavior.

A substantial slice of the film’s running time goes into considering the homoerotic aspects of Whitman’s landmark “Leaves of Grass” (complete with images of two men getting very friendly), but that gives the incorrect impression the book’s emotional focus is exclusively gay. And little information is provided on Whitman’s post-Civil War years – particularly, how did he support himself?

While the film offers rich slices of Whitman’s poetry, it curiously fails to include what may have been his most famous work, “O Captain! My Captain!” Chris Cooper provides the poet’s voice, but a well-preserved wax cylinder recording of Whitman is not included here.

Those who wish to learn more about Whitman would do better to look elsewhere, because you won’t learn much from this mess.

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