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Reviewed by:
  • The National Parks: America's Best Idea
  • Andrea Leigh (bio)
The National Parks: America's Best Idea; A film by Ken Burns; Public Broadcasting Service Video, 2009

Ken Burns has long created documentaries about polarizing topics with a knack for not saying something that will anger anyone. Over two decades, the subjects he has covered in his epic style for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) have taken on the Civil War, baseball, jazz, feminism, the West, World War II, and above all, race. The topics he tackles are substantive without being divisive, passionately arguing positions with which the majority would agree: war is hell, baseball and jazz are as American as apple pie, racism is bad, and democracy is a good thing.

The most recent addition to his American opus is the six-part series The National Parks: America's Best Idea that aired originally on PBS from September 27 to October 2, 2009, with both a DVD and Blu-ray edition released nearly simultaneously. The home video treatments contain more than three hours of bonus features, principally mini-documentaries about the making of the series, capturing the national parks on location, celebrating the [End Page 163] diverse history of the national parks, and containing contemporary stories not used in the series and outtakes of interviews. The special features provide an avid viewer a glimpse into the filmmaker's art and of the transformative power of the incomparable scenery.

At first glance, The National Parks does not appear to be different from any other Ken Burns treatment. All the signature effects are present: the pan-and-scan video technique used to embed still photographs into the story and as a means to transition from one scene to another; the use of simple musical leitmotifs; an infusion of a broad range of expert talking heads, with one rising to prominence (in this case, Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson); contemporary cinematography that elicits an ethereal orange glow from shots taken of natural scenery at sunrise or sunset; and a heavy reliance on archival documents, photographs, and moving images. The tidy formula used to tell the story of the history and creation of America's national parks assumes a passionate, overzealous excitement that democracy was at its best when the national park ideal was born.

There is nothing particularly polarizing about the concept of the uniquely American ideal of its citizens owning together the country's most magnificent landscapes. What sets The National Parks aside is its less subtle message that the free market doesn't always act in the public's best interests. Burns and cowriter Dayton Duncan firmly take the stand that there are just some things that cannot be handed over to the private sector, a potentially controversial perspective during a time when government intervention in the management of health care is at the forefront of American consciousness.

Still Burns and Duncan set the tone from the very beginning with the series's opening montage that centers on the primeval, orange glow of lava plunging into the ocean and forming new land at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Quotes from naturalist John Muir are poetically read aloud over the stunning scenery, emphasizing a "morning of creation," when "everyone needs beauty as well as bread"; that we are all "hitched to everything else"; and that what is experienced from these magnificent landscapes is "nature's sublime wonderlands." Duncan then reiterates the message by endorsing the concept of the national parks by softly stating that the result of our attempts to keep the parks as they were is a feeling that we're going back to the place from where we came, a place where memories and emotions are immersed in such a way that visiting a park is as comfortable as going home.

A sharp exclamation that is punctuated throughout the frequent high-definition contemporary views of the majestic scenery is the absence of people, roads, visitor centers, refreshment stands, and other human interventions. It is the exact statement that Ansel Adams effectively chose to make through his iconic photographs of Yosemite or the point President Theodore Roosevelt made clear in his proclamation after seeing the Grand Canyon...


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pp. 163-167
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