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Tags: burns | grant | jackson

Burns' 'The Civil War' Still Setting the Bar for Documentaries

filmmaker ken burns

Filmmaker Ken Burns speaks during the PBS segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour 2019 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 29, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Michael Clark By Sunday, 08 November 2020 08:19 AM EST Current | Bio | Archive

*** out of **** (4 Out of 4 Stars) 

(PBS/Warner Bros. - Not Rated)

Originally airing 30 years ago this past September, producer/director Ken Burns’ "The Civil War" not only set a new bar for documentary filmmaking, it remains the most viewed production in the history of PBS.

It remains entertaining and educational.

Divided into nine episodes with a running time of 690 minutes, it was exhaustively researched, painstakingly detailed and crafted in a viewer-friendly manner largely lacking the starchy dry approach of most documentary productions before or since.

To label it the greatest achievement in the history of non-fictional television would not be an overstatement.

With the exception of modern day interviews and a handful of ambient live-action establishing shots, "The Civil War" consists completely of still photos accompanied by voice-overs, carefully-measured sound effects and a meticulously-crafted backing score of period and original music.

Narrated with understated authority and grace (as he has for other PBS documentaries) by the multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning and Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded writer/historian David McCullough (author of "John Adams," "Truman"), the production also features an eclectic mix of voice talent from a multitude of creative disciplines.

Sam Waterston, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman, Jeremy Irons, Philip Bosco, and Laurence Fishburne were among the highest profile"known" actors.

Writer voices included Arthur Miller, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Garrison Keeler, and George Plimpton. Among the featured musicians were John Hammond, Hoyt Axton, and Ronnie Gilbert. Among others, former Jimmy Carter administration member Jody Powell provided the voice of General Stonewall Jackson.

It was evident Burns was aiming for tone, timbre, intonation, and emotion.

His casting choices were all spot-on.

Among the interviewees, it was the lesser-known historian Shelby Foote who received the most screen time and viewer feedback. A Mississippi native, Foote had already written a sprawling, three-part history of the Civil War totaling over one million words.

Throughout the film, Foote strikes a notably non-judgmental approach.

He points out the sense of defeat still felt by southerners but does so without any animus or bile. Writers will appreciate his use of the words "élan" and "dash" in the same sentence.

Other interviewed historians include Ed Bearss, Stephen Oates, William Safire, James Symington, and Columbia University professor Barbara Fields.

It's during the final stretch of the last installment that Fields --- most likely without knowing it at the time --- somewhat predicted an eventual and inevitable continuation/sequel of the war.

What Fields fails to mention is that neither the Constitution nor its 13th Amendment guarantees "happiness" but does offer "the pursuit of happiness" to all Americans.

The storytelling flourishes that served Burns so well in “The Civil War” were repeated by him to far lesser effect in subsequent productions including but not limited to: "Baseball (1994)," "Thomas Jefferson (1997)," "Mark Twain" (2001), "The War" (2007), "The National Parks" (2009), and "The Vietnam War" (2017).

It was only during his stupendous efforts "Jazz" (2001) and "Country Music" (2019) did Burns break free from the format he didn’t introduce but ultimately refined which is actually referred to now as "the Ken Burns effect" of filmmaking.

Beginning with mere hushed whispers in the spring and growing increasingly louder ever since, the talk of an impending second American Civil War seems to be gaining momentum on multiple fronts with none of the discourse resembling the cause(s) which instigated the first.

If there is a modern day civil war, it won’t be over states rights or the long-settled issue of slavery. It won’t be between the north and the south or race or even the rich and the poor, but rather between those wanting to support and defend the nearly 250-year-old U.S. constitution and those wishing to transform the country into a Marxist state.

On Nov. 3 (and the weeks before), Americans went to the polls in record numbers and it appeared that the process was working as it should until the early hours of Wednesday the Nov. 4, when vote counters in four major swing-state cities (Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta) called it a night for reasons that still remain unclear.

To be clear, Atlanta officials claimed the halt to their count was based on a broken water main.

At the time of this apparent coordinated shutdown, President Trump was leading in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia by large margins.

It is also worth noting that Joe Biden underperformed in every major American city won by both previous Democrat nominees Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton save for those mentioned above.

This is unprecedented on every possible level and regardless of how the election eventually pans out. The American people need and deserve an answer on why this went down and who orchestrated it.

The under-the-cover-of-darkness arrival of hundreds of thousands of "new" ballots (including a batch where all 138,000 went to Biden) only increases gnawing suspicion, the appearance of tampering and malfeasance while testing (beyond belief) the reasonable laws of probability and outcome.

If Burns is looking for a new project, a documentary about the most controversial presidential election of our lifetime, if not the entire history of country, would be an ideal choice.

Given the likelihood there won’t be a final word on all of it for weeks if not months, he’s got plenty of time to start prepping.

"The Civil War" is available on both Blu-ray and DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime.

Originally from Washington, D."C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here.

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If Burns is looking for a new project, a documentary about the most controversial presidential election of our lifetime, if not the entire history of country, would be an ideal choice.
burns, grant, jackson
Sunday, 08 November 2020 08:19 AM
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