Ken Burns’ The Civil War (DVD)
The famous 11-hour documentary on America’s most torrential war has been lavished, deservedly, with more praise than any other documentary in memory. And a lot of it is on the new DVD, a remastered version of the PBS icon.
Pressing all nine episodes onto five discs, The Civil War sports some highly laudatory interviews in the extras section, with the likes of George Will, Stanley Crouch and Ken Burns himself sitting down for interviews about the monumental impact the series had when first aired in 1990 and what’s come since. And that’s where it becomes not flat, but pretty thin.
While there are the requisite making-of documentaries, the commentary by Burns starts with each chapter in the saga but stops halfway through, in a way that makes it difficult to watch it from beginning to end. And we know it’s brilliant because at several turns Burns as much as tells us so, including one fumbling, fawning anecdote about how Bill Clinton told Burns how great he was. The commentary isn’t so much what he went through to create this series, but rather regurgitations of the series’ polished scripts themselves.
In his defense, Burns’ staggering success in bringing this 140-year-old history to life with a hundred beating hearts set a standard of artistry anyone would be hard pressed to match while chatting about editing decisions.
But if you want your own copy of the best documentary series this country has produced, forget the extras and lose yourself in this one.