Ken Burns’ PBS documentaries examining any and all facets of American history long ago fell into a predictable pattern. Slow pans across period photos, accompanied by voiceovers from prominent actors reading texts from the time. Sweetly melancholic music played on vintage instruments, especially strings. Vignettes from bygone American lives presented as exemplifying the common life of the time. Burns has never met a historical moment he couldn’t ladle 500 other things on top of.
Burns does an admirable job of restraining himself in the early going of The National Parks, perhaps because this is a subject where the present matches the past. America’s national parks are still gorgeous places, and Burns’ footage of them, usually taken from high above, is a good reminder of why the song talks about purple mountains’ majesty. The first four hours of the documentary are surprisingly quiet, given Burns’ predilection for using music to make sure viewers know how to feel at any given moment. Here, though, Burns seems affected by the transcendentalists and advocates of the natural world he quotes, and he turns to reflective footage of the grandeur of Yosemite or Yellowstone.
The problem is that the national parks system just doesn’t deserve a 12-hour documentary. Eventually, especially after prominent parks champions John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt leave the story, The National Parks just turns into a deeply repetitive miniseries about a long succession of people who think their particular corners of heaven should be national parks, and succeed in making that happen. The footage of these parks remains spectacular, but the story gets more and more redundant, except in the cases of the Grand Canyon and the Everglades, both of which took an obscenely long time to become parks, for a variety of reasons.
As his story gets away from him, Burns leans heavily on the stuff that’s worked for him in the past, cramming in historical figures only tangentially connected to what’s going on, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and layering on the rustic Americana music. As the national parks system becomes a success, more and more parks are added, more and more players enter the story, and Burns’ storytelling grows increasingly disjointed.
So what works best about The National Parks are those first four hours, but also a message Burns probably didn’t even intend in the first place—one that seems particularly timely, which is unusual for a Burns film. The National Parks functions, on some levels, as a defense of liberalism. It’s possible but improbable that a private corporation would have protected Yellowstone, as early footage of how the U.S. failed to protect Niagara Falls from 19th-century business interests shows. Burns is always careful to make films about what unites Americans, rather than what divides them, but by making a film that so perfectly argues there are some things only the government and public trust can do, he’s unknowingly inserted himself into the driving political debate of the moment.
Key features: Nearly every disc has a handful of excellent features, including a number of smaller documentaries about the modern state of the parks, a making-of documentary, and soothing fly-over footage of the parks.