The Dust Bowl debuts tonight on most PBS stations at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 7 p.m. Central and Mountain. Part two will debut at the same time Monday. You should check local listings.
Nothing was more damaging to Ken Burns than becoming an institution. His massive documentary The Civil War remains one of the very best TV miniseries ever, and 1994’s Baseball can make an argument for being even better. But since Baseball, he’s been weirdly hit and miss, his films too often straining to be the defining documents of whatever topic they’re about. His output has become prodigious, and the “Ken Burns style” has become so predictable—the slow pans over old photos, the carefully chosen documents to augment the images—and so influential that it’s impossible to be surprised by the guy anymore. The Civil War and Baseball worked because of their raw, emotional connections, because Burns was so very good at distilling those subjects down to the sorts of human stories that made the larger narratives take root. But recent films like The War and The National Parks have strained to accomplish the same, with Burns too often hammering home his points in a reductive fashion that gives the audience no room to draw its own conclusions.
What a pleasure, then, to watch The Dust Bowl, Burns’ best film in years. Burns’ early films—the ones before The Civil War—often found out-of-the-way corners of American history and settled in for short tales of how those corners illuminated the current American experience. (If you’ve never seen it, his film on the Shakers, which is on most streaming platforms, is only an hour long and a must.) What makes The Dust Bowl so refreshing is that it mostly returns to this style of filmmaking. Burns is in full command of his Civil War style here, but he’s also rounded up a huge number of people who lived through the black blizzards of the 1930s, and he’s gotten them to record their memories for the camera. These people, few of whom will survive the decade, most likely, are being given a chance to record their thoughts on an under-documented time in our country’s history, and Burns is smart enough to simply get out of their way and let them talk. It’s a choice that makes this riveting, if brutal, television.
The story of the dust bowl is one that will sound familiar to most Americans. It’s a tale of hubris, followed by a perilous fall, and it’s a tale of how a nation set itself up with a boom it thought would never end, only to see just how far the bust would take it down. In the opening passages of the film, it’s posited that the sorts of ecological catastrophes that came before the dust bowl were those that nature took millennia to create, yet Americans were able to create this one—the worst man-made ecological disaster in history—in a matter of 40 to 50 years. For the first half hour of the four-hour film, Burns methodically lays out the ways that the Great Plains were stripped of the prairie grasses that kept the soil in place when the rough winds of the region swept through. He also lays out all of the ways that Americans of the period thought themselves uniquely lucky to be living in a time when the climate would shift permanently, to allow for centuries of fertile growing seasons on the plains.
This first half hour could feel a bit textbook—though Burns clearly relishes laying out the parallels between the hubris leading up to the dust bowl and any number of other similar, modern environmental disasters—but it’s necessary preamble for what comes next. As the winds pick up and the drought grows deeper, the dust begins to blow across the prairies, and Burns increasingly sets aside Peter Coyote’s narration in favor of the stories of people who lived through these times. These stories have occasional moments of hope and even sweetness, but they’re mostly deeply horrifying and incredibly sad. The people talking to Burns’ camera were mostly children when the dust bowl happened, yet their memories are crystal clear. It’s obvious the disaster was the sort of thing that gets seared upon one’s brain, so that even a 4-year-old will remember the horrors they were subjected to.
Burns doesn’t mince words either: Mankind created this disaster, and there are any number of other ecological catastrophes we can create, if we haven’t learned the lessons of the Great Plains in the ’30s. In particular, he spends much of the last 20 minutes of the program talking about the Ogallala Aquifer, the massive, underground body of water beneath the plains that’s been slowly drained over the years and may only have as much as 20 years of water left in it. Burns gets much out of the foolhardy way that humans believe that everything is going to be awesome all of the time, the way that people can be fooled into thinking that nothing can go wrong, only to have no plan B when things do go wrong. And yet he never mocks or condescends to these people (outside of the scientists and government officials who ignored data to promise a future of endless bumper crops). He gets right down into the grit with them and shows us viscerally what it’s like to be at the mercy of the natural world—and what we might have to look forward to if we don’t heed the warnings of our own time.
It’s these stories that give the film its impact. It can be weirdly paced and uneven—the final hour, in particular, seems to be a grab bag of topics Burns couldn’t fit anywhere else—but he shows admirable restraint and focus. Rather than pull back and try to depict all of the dust bowl, Burns spends most of his time around Boise City, Oklahoma, the epicenter of the disaster and the place where people suffered most. By covering only a very small geographical area, including the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, as well as parts of Kansas and Colorado, for the bulk of the film’s running time, Burns can carefully situate his survivors by where they lived in relation to Boise City or Amarillo, Texas. He uses maps not to show where cities were or how the dust storms moved across the plains, but rather to show the locations of homesteads, to give a sense of the rolling doom that was Black Sunday and how it gradually enveloped his interviewees one by one.
There are moments of hope here and there, and Burns eventually turns his eye toward the great migration from the center of the country westward to California. (He also awkwardly attempts to loop in John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange, and Woody Guthrie, perhaps because he knows his audience will know those three names.) There are bits and pieces where president Franklin Delano Roosevelt keeps trying anything he can think of to help restore the land to the fertile plain it once was, even though he can’t control the weather. And there are stories of some of the simple joys of the time, of the ways that families came together in the face of utter desolation.
But for the most part, this is a special filled with dark, terrifying details, with stories of what it means to try to survive when survival is barely better than dying. There are stories of massive herds of jackrabbits rounded up and beaten to death by children, of fathers forced to slaughter livestock that might have provided a bit of food or money simply to keep their children alive. There are stories of the tingling static electricity that preceded the dust storms and of the suicides and accidental deaths that arrived in the midst of them. This is grim, awful stuff, but it bears with it a tacit message: Look back and beware. There’s nothing saying this couldn’t be you someday. And in a welcome return to his greatest form, Burns never oversells this point. He sits back and lets the audience draw its own stark, terrifying conclusions.