****/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A
directed by Ken Burns
by Walter Chaw Almost forgotten amidst the lavish praise and hyperbole heaped on Ken Burns's eleven-hour foray into the American Civil War is that the picture is among the finest of its kind ever produced. The Civil War is an indescribably informative, exhaustively researched and compiled work that particularly astonishes not for its depth of information, the audacity of its creation, or the logic of its organization, but for the amount of emotion it evokes in recounting familiar events.
A film that would serve as a college primer on our war between the states, The Civil War also, somewhat unexpectedly for an educational piece, makes grown men weep at the sacrifice, courage, and high-minded bloodshed that formed the crux of our modern nation. If Ken Burns hadn't made another documentary (and, indeed, he has yet to make another this one's equal), his reputation as the classical documentary filmmaker of the era would already be cemented. The term "Burns Documentary" has, in fact, already pervaded the filmmaker's popular vernacular as completely as the term "Maysles Documentary" did a generation ago.
A close discussion of the miniseries almost unavoidably segues into a discussion of the war itself; to avoid such a discursive analysis, sufficed to say that The Civil War is composed of some 16,000 still photographs narrated by famous voices reading period-letters and documents while a unifying narrative (scripted by Ken and Ric Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, read by historian David McCullough) fills in backstory and detail. (For an interesting expansion of the "Burns Documentary," take a look at The Kid Stays in the Picture, with its kinetic, rotoscoped stills--an innovation that is essentially the logical next step in Burns's use of the frozen image.) Period-specific music adds, itself, a remarkable amount of depth and nuance to the film, simultaneously providing, by its example, a template for the use of score that has been largely forgotten in an age dominated by the two-headed baton-wielding gorilla of Spielberg and Williams. The use of lay-people journals and letters provides for an impossibly rich atmosphere; using archives as static and unmoving as a century of dead air, the genius of The Civil War lies in its ability to grasp us by the emotional short hairs and tug.
My first exposure to The Civil War, as it was for millions of viewers, was in its debut run on PBS in 1990. It was an experience that made television a ritual in a way that it hadn't been for me in years--so startling and engrossing was the series that I was inspired to seek out Shelby Foote's amazing Civil War narrative and the writing of Bruce Catton and Allan Nevins during its run, following along as best I could in my studies with the progress of the series. Upon returning to The Civil War now, roughly a dozen years later (and having never watched the series again despite its annual resurrection to serve the fund-raising cause of local PBS stations)--with the benefit of all that literature and discursive auto-education--I am amazed again that Burns was able to compile the wealth of scholarship on the war proper (if not entirely satisfyingly on the root causes) into a piece so eloquent and precise. It occurs to me that the real triumph of The Civil War is that for as authoritative as it is, it manages to convey the importance--and joy--of additional inquiry into not only this period, but also all of history. Burns, in a very real way, is that special teacher most of us have who convinces us for a while that there is, indeed, interest to be plumbed where there was never interest before.
Finding its way at last to DVD, The Civil War arrives in a handsome multi-slot digipak/slipcover package spread over five discs--two episodes on each after the first, which houses the premiere as well as the non-commentary special features. Though it's difficult to assess the video quality of what is essentially a collection of photographs taken in the ten-year period between 1860 and 1869, I'm reasonably certain that these photos look as good as they probably ever have. At the least, the few new shots of battle locations captured on film are sharp and rich. More impressive is an amazingly agile Dolby 5.1 audio that manages several nice rear-channel battle effects while reproducing score and narration with a range that envelops all front channels. The soundtrack is warm and satisfying and a testament to the care taken in nearly every aspect of this production.
A commentary offered by Burns is a minor disappointment--not for the information offered (among the best is the revelation that of all the still photographs, there is only one that might possibly include a picture of actual warfare), but for the way it's presented after the first episode. Perhaps wisely choosing not to try to record an eleven-hour yakker, Burns picks and chooses the segments of an episode for which he wishes to offer an alternative perspective: seven segments of the first twelve, and three segments each thereafter for the remaining eight episodes. Not a problem in of itself (and, in fact, many filmmakers would do well to follow his lead, as few commentaries hold any kind of interest aside from the stray tidbit now and again), when the commentary track is enabled through remote or Special Features menu, as the film plays on into un-commented scenes the regular soundtrack doesn't return. It's a minor annoyance to switch back and forth, to be sure, but an annoyance nonetheless. The commentary itself is filled with the kind of quiet passion that Burns brings to his projects: the story of the sources of some of the photographs, the struggles of finding the most respectful approach to a particularly appalling episode, and the rigors of editing such a mammoth undertaking are all welcome and well-presented.
Disc One includes several short documentaries (about the long documentary, curiously enough) composed of interviews and "making of" pieces that benefit from the expertise of the subjects in the very form to which they are now subject. The initial doc highlights the difference between telecines and digital scanning, giving lie to my observation that it's difficult to tell the difference between broadcast and DVD versions. When placed side-by-side, there can be no mistaking the craft taken in this restoration for what is said in the first featurette--the eight-minute "Behind the Scenes: The Civil War Reconstruction"--to be a twelve-year revised print set to air this year on PBS. "Behind the Scenes" also covers the remixing process of the picture's fabulous soundtrack, the success of which might have paved the way to the resounding success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.
A series of "Interviews" skate close to the self-congratulatory as each roughly ten-minute segment (featuring Ken Burns, Shelby Foote, George Will, Stanley Crouch, and musicians Jay Ungar & Molly Mason) breaks down into arm-breaking back-patting and embarrassing hyperbole. A degree of adulation, I confess, I would fall into if ever asked my opinion of the piece, though one wonders at the wisdom of including what are essentially statements of the obvious to the choir assembled to view these behemoths extra features.
"Ken Burns: Making History" (8 mins.) follows the filmmaker at work. Presented--as are the other documentaries--in the classic "Burns Style," "Ken Burns: Making History" is certainly entertaining to watch (the more so for the clips from other Burns works like Baseball and Lewis & Clark and the musings on the selections of vocal talent), but at this point, the supplemental material is unquestionably beginning to feel redundant.
"A Conversation with Ken Burns" (10 mins.) is again imbued by Burns's passion for his work and features the most affecting moment of these bonus materials as Burns recounts recreating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the moment he and his editors "delay" the man's death. It speaks a little to the power of film as a storytelling medium and distils what it is about Burns's work that so affects. Again, however, there seems a limit to the amount of real insight to be gained by extended studies of Burns. Redundancy is by now the rule of the day.
A "Civil War Challenge" is a trivia "game" that washes out as flashcards--five to a disc--on facts presented in the episodes in question. Think of them as those study questions in annotated textbooks, but easy as pie and with the answers at hand. "Battlefield Maps" are nice reference points to the places and conflicts detailed in any particular episode while "Civil War Biographies" features dozens of nice Cliff's Notes on the major personalities on the North, South, and Civilian sides of the divide. Available on every one of the five discs of the set, the game, maps, select commentaries, and biographies form the "meat" of the bonus features--the documentaries on the first disc alone forming the sometimes flavourful "fat."
All in all, PBS Gold DVD's The Civil War is a must-have for any amateur historian or documentary film lover. It joins such works as Victory at Sea, The World at War, and Shoah as a seminal example of the traditional documentary form and is presented here in such a way as to fulfill any casual fan of Burns or this series. Originally published: October 28, 2002.