"Are the National Parks really a better idea than cheese spray?" Judge Clark Douglas wondered.
A documentary nearly a decade in the making.
There is perhaps no documentary filmmaker who has earned as much regard from the American public as Ken Burns. Though some may prefer the intense originality of Werner Herzog or the thoughtful beauty of Errol Morris or the entertainingly fiery passion of Michael Moore, Burns stands tall as the official king of the form. His film The Civil War is still regarded one of the great documentaries of all time, and his intensely comprehensive and well-researched miniseries such as Baseball, Jazz, and The War have earned similar acclaim. Now Burns returns with The National Parks: America's Best Idea, a typically sweeping 12-hour undertaking in which Burns and writer/producer Dayton Duncan examine the history of our national parks in that stirringly heartfelt manner that is so closely associated with Burns' work.
The National Parks is more than just a chronicling of the history of these parks; it's a poetic and passionate art piece that attempts to engage the viewer on every level. It is a collection of facts, it is a sequence of dreams, it is a reflective celebration of nature, and it is a surprisingly spiritual affair. A great deal of time is spent reflecting on the idea that we are looking at the best of God's handiwork; thus making the preservation of our national parks not only an attempt to protect Mother Nature but a form of spiritual warfare on earth. It's God's mighty Parks and Recreation warriors against Satan's rapists of the environment, and the battle is underscored by endlessly grandiose poetry and an equally endless collection of melancholic folk music fiddling. There is little interest shown in the specific natural factors that played a role in creating some of our national wonders. Instead, we hear from individuals who wax eloquent while tossing out phrases like "supernatural magic" and "God's paintbrush."
This mentality may frustrate the scientifically minded, but then again Burns and Duncan are not attempting to reach the scientists. As with the other Burns documentaries, this material is as accessible as possible. It's easy to imagine how a 12-hour documentary about national parks might become a bit dry after a while (honestly, doesn't the phrase "12-hour documentary about national parks" sound a bit like a punch line?), so I suppose it's unsurprising that Burns and co. do as much as possible in order to prevent the documentary from becoming clinical. Personally, I'm a little torn on the tone, as there were moments when I wanted The National Parks to ease up on the lofty purple prose and start digging into the meaty historical information again.
To be sure, there is a great deal of fascinating history contained within this sprawling beast. It's presented in chronological order, with each two-hour segment spotlighting the next chunk of time. The six two-hour episodes are spread across six Blu-ray discs.
Disc 1: The Scripture of Nature (1851-1890)
The first two discs spend a great deal of time focusing on the colorful life of John Muir, one of the earliest and most significant American environmentalists. We hear about his efforts in saving Yosemite Valley and other areas of importance, and his struggle to convince other Americans of the importance of preservation and conservation. It is interesting to note that making great strides in conservation was seemingly somewhat less difficult in what was often a rather closed-minded era. We hear about U.S. Presidents like Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt making dramatic decisions and choosing to preserve massive sections of land, though not always with appropriate systems in place to actually protect the land they had decided to preserve. Though a lot has changed over the course of the last century, there is at least some measure of consistency in the battle over the preservation of national parks. There has always been a significant group of people passionate about defending some of America's greatest nature preserves, while there has also always been a significant group of people determined to take advantage of such land and exploit it for financial gain.
Over the course of the documentary, you will hear about the shifting political factors that played such a significant role in the battle to create and/or preserve various national parks, the various conservationist leaders that rose up to replace their predecessors as the years went on, the hotly-contested decisions made by the likes of FDR and Jimmy Carter during the 20th Century, the struggle to preserve certain endangered species living within the national parks, and of course examinations of the ways in which the national parks have affected the realms of art, politics, the economy, agriculture and the lives of many different American citizens. By the time I reached the conclusion of The National Parks, I confess that I was a bit fatigued due to soaking in such a massive amount of information in such a short span of time, but I was also impressed with the sheer ambition and generally strong level of craftsmanship contained within the project. Burns may be the sort of filmmaker who feels that the greatness of an effort is at least partially defined by its length, but taken in reasonable doses this is really engaging stuff.
The Blu-ray transfer is offered in 1080i rather than 1080p, but that considered, the transfer is generally strong. As with most other Burns documentaries, this one relies pretty heavily on new location footage, interviews with experts, archival footage and slow-panning shots across thousands of old photos. As such, the image is often only as good as the source material, but I was pleased with the richly detailed rendering of the photos. The most gorgeous moments are predictably the new sequences in which the camera wanders through the most majestic portion of a national park. Colors are vibrant and distinct while blacks are typically quite deep. The audio is excellent, as the effective period music blend quite nicely with the narration from the likes of Peter Coyote, Tom Hanks, Campbell Scott, and many other voice actors of note.
The supplemental package is actually very generous, particularly when you consider that many documentaries make their way to home video via bare-bones releases. The only slightly bothersome thing is that the supplements are spread across the entire set, so you'll have to pop in every disc if you want to see them all. Disc 1 offers "The Making of The National Parks," a 25-minute featurette offering thoughts from the filmmakers on the who, what, when, where, why and how of this production. On Disc 2 is another making-of featurette, "Capturing the Parks." Disc 3 presents a pleasant series of "Musical Journeys Through the National Parks." Disc 4 includes a handful of additional sequences and outtakes that were cut from the finished documentary. Disc 5 turns in a mini-documentary called "The National Parks: This is America." Finally, Disc 6 offers a handful of short films spotlighting specific areas: "San Antonio Missions: Keeping History Alive," "Yosimite's Buffalo Soldiers," "Mount Rushmore: Telling America's Stories," "Manazar: Never Again," and "City Kids in National Parks."
Though The National Parks is minor Burns, it's still worth a look for those patient enough to tolerate the abundance of self-indulgence on display. The Blu-ray looks lovely.
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