Schama’s book, Dead Certainties presented several problems for me, the most compelling of which was that Schama failed to differentiate between fact and fiction. He presented the story as a narrative, and without prior knowledge of the Parkman murder, it was hard to know which part of his story could be fact checked and which could not. The film, Murder at Harvard, was much clearer about making the distinction, and it allowed Schama the chance to tell his audience which parts of the book were his own imagination.
The film had several problems, notably Schama himself. If it was not for his commentary, the film might have been able to come across as a documentary, or an episode that could have been shown on the History Channel. It presented an episode of American history that has not been resolved, and different view points regarding what really took place. These types of films, particularly those involving re-enactments are valuable and can be a great tool for the general public. Unfortunately, Murder at Harvard stopped with Schama’s take on the events around Parkman’s murder. The film makes use of several experts, but stops short of really allowing them to debate the issue and the murder, instead they seem almost to be mouthpieces for Schama’s conclusions.
It might be that reading the book influenced my dislike of the film, but I disagreed with Schama’s classification of his story as history. He presented no source material at all to support his conclusions. Schama makes the point in the film, and it has also been discussed in this blog that the distance between history and fiction is short. That might be true, but the distance is not anywhere near as short as Schama portrays. The difference between solid history and fictional speculation is that history built on evidence and facts. While the movie certainly has more historical merit than the book, Schama is incorrect to pass off his story as anything but fiction.
I believe that the documentary as an art form has great benefits and can be an extremely useful teaching tool. I do not think that Murder at Harvard falls into this category. Documentary, when produced properly, can tell a story about a historical event, illuminate an ongoing controversy, and display informed debate. Schama and Murder at Harvard displays one side of the controversy without letting its audience make their own conclusions.