'Hamilton' Review: Lin-Manuel Miranda rewrites American history with soul-stirring adaptation of Broadway hit
There's a poignant scene in 'Hamilton'. The founding father has been temporarily suspended by George Washington (Christopher Jackson), owing to his hot-headed behavior with his peer. Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who would go on to become the co-author of the Federalist papers and becoming the first Treasury secretary, has been told 'to go home'. An upset Hamilton returns to his wife Elizabeth (Phillipa Soo), who has some good news to share. They're going to have a child soon. Her emotions are etched in the song, "We are lucky to be alive now..."
The words echo and reverberate the times that we live in currently. We are lucky to be alive in a world that has been brought to its knees by a crippling pandemic that shows no mercy. It's a world that also finally rose against the brutal suppression of Black people. There is despair, anguish, and yet a shining beacon of hope ahead of us, though, at most points, it seems well out of our reach. And curiously, 'Hamilton', the famous Broadway musical that evolved into a cultural phenomenon, seemed to bring the light a little closer to us in the form of its emphasis on equality and immigrant inclusion, and shadows of hope. The irony lies in the fact that it is based on a man who lived and thrived in the most unequal of times. However, the musical decides to turn history on its head. Instead of portraying White supremacists deciding the future of America, there are people of color who believe that they know what's right for the country, and this is a real consolation. The founding fathers are not what we have studied in our history books, but seem to be crafting some utopian dream of equality. Perhaps the light is delusional, but it does feel warm and comforting at points of darkness.
The essence of 'Hamilton' is the quintessential American dream, but of a very complex hero, who you might, or might not want to root for at points. Lin-Manuel Miranda delves into the complexities of the over-ambitious and confident Hamilton, who has full faith in his intellectual abilities. He knows he will make it big, and he will do so at any cost. As it's unveiled later in the stage-to-screen film, he would do anything to survive, even if it means sacrificing his own marriage later. He can be insufferable because he is desperate to break away from the invisible chains that have tied him down since childhood. Beneath all the bravado is a nervous and insecure man, who is constantly worried about his public image, despite the milestones he has achieved. He is never satisfied, as his sister-in-law Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry) says. He is perennially searching for something, and nothing is enough for him, neither his stable career nor his marriage. It's his burning desire to escape from poverty, his illegitimate status, and quest to achieve everlasting fame that angers his old friend Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr), who becomes his political rival soon, and believes that Hamilton is responsible behind every failure of his. The tensions between Burr and Hamilton are rife throughout the musical, initially in the form of jibes, then much mud-slinging, and finally the infamous duel that actually kills Hamilton.
The first act sees the rise and rise of Hamilton, and the second act meanders into a more sorrowful territory, as Hamilton begins to fumble politically, as well as personally. The facade of confidence ebbs away, and he is looking at the ruins of his making around him. But yet, you feel for him and his pain intensely. His marriage crumbles, and his son dies in a duel, something that mirrors his own death later. These scenes are executed with heartbreaking emotions. The songs 'Burn' and 'It's Quiet Uptown' expound on the grief and loss of the situation. It's easy to see why this musical is such a rage.
Each character is markedly fleshed out and given a distinct personality, whether it is the flamboyant King George (Jonathan Groff) and his taunts, or the ever-stoic George Washington, and his father-like fondness for Hamilton. Daveed Diggs gives a spectacular performance as Marquis De Lafayette as well as a rather punk-ish Thomas Jefferson later. Understandably, this story of Hamilton is situated in the 1770s, so the women cannot have a more prominent role. But that's the sly genius of Miranda, who has written the character of Angelica in such a way that she's just on the verge of smashing the patriarchal chains around her. Angelica, the feminist, wants to travel the world. This strong archetype pits her against her sister Elizabeth, the virtuous, docile woman. Elizabeth has a quiet fire in her that lights up when she realizes her husband's infidelity, and that's wondrously portrayed in the song 'Burn', where she wants to erase herself from his narrative.
There is no dialogue, there are just songs and a mix of it all too, from rap and hip-hop to jazz, R&B. The music doesn't need more praise, because, honestly, it is beyond any sort of critique and conveys every emotion of the characters without sermonizing or making it sound too expository. 'Hamilton' makes for a glorious watch, and you get the front seat to all the action, thanks to the impeccable camerawork. This might not be the Hamilton you studied about in school, as many of the uncomfortable facts are left out or carefully glossed over, but this strange musical version might just be what you would need in 2020. The peculiar cultural and historical fusion is a must-watch.
The film is available for streaming on Disney+.