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The National Parks: America's Best Idea(TV) (2009)
The National Parks (six episodes, twelve hours) tells the human history of five of the nation’s most important and most heavily visited National Parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Great Smoky Mountains) and the unforgettable Americans who made them possible. Set against some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, each park’s story is filled with incidents and characters as gripping and fascinating as U.S. history has to offer.
For more about The National Parks: America's Best Idea and The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray release, see The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray Review
Director: Ken Burns
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The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray Review
Ken Burns does it again, and on Blu-ray for the first time.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, October 26, 2009
One of the best bits of national achievement which our people have to their credit.
Ken Burns, the world's preeminent documentarian, once again turns to America's storied past to dazzle audiences with his latest labor of love, The National Parks: America's Best Idea. For those with a thirst for knowledge and a taste for wonderfully-realized films that serve as teaching tool, entertainment, and work of art all rolled into one, Burns' films are best experienced rather than merely watched, best immersed rather than merely understood. Whether the statistician; history buff; or connoisseur of involving, intellectually stimulating, and expertly-produced films, the multi award-winning filmmaker continues his streak with The National Parks: America's Best Idea, this time taking something of a more abstract and arguably more dry subject matter and working his magic on it, delivering a captivating, meaningful, and intelligent examination of one of America's most storied and important -- but often overlooked and sometimes taken for granted -- treasures. Seemingly a far cry from the rich history of America's Pastime, the deep examination of a uniquely American musical style, the personal and moving history of the nation's bloodiest war, or the scope of the conflict which forever altered the political and cultural landscape of the second half of the 20th century and beyond, the story of America's National parks is nevertheless no less personal, dangerous, exciting, rich, and culturally and politically significant, and its story is now accessible in another winning film from arguably the greatest Documentary filmmaker of all time.
When reviewing a film like The National Parks: America's Best Idea, it seems best not to provide a play-by-play of what to expect from every episode, but rather to explain the richness of the experience when taken in as a whole, understood as a single, cohesive entity rather than a choppy collection of segments. What sets The National Parks: America's Best Idea -- and Burns' other documentaries -- apart from likeminded films is an organic structure that demands perhaps not a straight-through 12-hour watch but certainly an appreciation for and understanding of the way the story builds upon itself block-by-block as what begins as Lafayette Bunnell's first breathtaking vision of what would become Yosemite National Park to Adolph Murie's fight to preserve the natural habitat of the wildlife that then and now call the parks home. The National Parks: America's Best Idea is more than a collection of mere bullet points, more than bits and pieces of historical nuggets cobbled together in a cohesive manner. Instead, the story of the Parks as presented here is America, and this film is a grand chronicling of her history, her ups, her downs, her wrongs, her rights, her people, her grandeur. Indeed, The National Parks: America's Best Idea deserves better than a dry run-through of the richness it has to offer. It requires one's appreciation of the nuanced structure and of history's organic flow and the way it gradually shapes the structure of the present, much the same way a riverbed rock is over the years smoothed by the rushing waters that flow over its surface. The gaps between The National Parks: America's Best Idea's six individual chapters -- The Scripture of Nature, The Last Refuge, The Empire of Grandeur, Going Home, Great Nature, and The Morning of Creation -- seem more a breather, a chance for reflection, or a pause, rather than an end, as viewers revel in the majesty of America as seen through the eye of her master documentarian.
Indeed, The National Parks: America's Best Idea is best taken in through the proper lens and in the right frame of mind; there's not doubt that the length seems daunting and the subject material -- on a purely superficial level -- seems a bit dull, particularly compared to some of Burns' other endeavors. Taken fragmentarily, The National Parks: America's Best Idea can seem not all that different from any other garden-variety Documentary. At a glance, the film can take on the appearance of the more touristy sort of generic clips that travelers often find at any number of significant stops around the country, whether a railroad museum, Old West recreations, or even tea or beer breweries. However, soaking the material in, appreciating it beyond face value, and basking in the style in which it is presented, it becomes easy to see why Burns' documentaries are revered as the best in the business and why The National Parks: America's Best Idea is itself a master Documentary. As expected, Burns keeps things fresh and engaging throughout, and it's the exception to the rule when the material becomes a bit monotonous. There are certainly a few places where the film can drag, but generally speaking, it's a relatively quick-in-perspective watch as history unfolds under the watchful eye of the camera that captures the expected array of archival video footage and photographs, filmed natural wonders, and interview clips with historians, park rangers, history makers, and any other number of contributing individuals; through its often stirring score; and via Peter Coyote's excellent and evenly-keeled narration.
The National Parks: America's Best Idea is vintage Ken Burns. Not only does the film leave no stone unturned in its quest to compile the rich history of its subject, but it does so not dryly but rather in a manner that engages the viewer, captivating the senses and challenging the mind as it presents material not with a heavy hand or a particular bias but instead with a gentleness that accentuates the scope of the material, the historical significance of the subject, and the audience's appreciation for not only the story it tells but also the people, places, and things that are painted here not as detached subjects reduced to a blurb and a photo but instead as living, breathing, and wholly integral pieces that shaped America's destiny and preserved her natural beauty. Much like Burns' Baseball, he here examines the subject material not in a vacuum but through the dynamics of history. Baseball -- America's Pastime -- is not a game but an institution, not a sport but a way of life that's wholly American, and its long and storied past moves with the ebb and flow of American history, the two seemingly interconnected, and Burns paints his story of America's National Parks in much the same way. The film features not only a conventional history of the Parks but looks deeper for the significance -- culturally and politically, for instance -- of the Parks in the conservation of a small slice of the world as it was for not only the enjoyment of those that are and will be, but as an immutable testament to the beauty of natural wonders that, no matter how tall man may build a skyscraper or how majestically he may sculpt a statue, cannot be bettered. The National Parks: America's Best Idea dissects the Park's place in America through the lens of America herself, and much like baseball -- a sport of which Terrence Mann once said, "The one constant through all the years...has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again" -- the stalwart "Old Faithful" at Yellowstone, the wonder of the Petrified Forest, and the majesty of all America's National Parks, represent a constant reminder of all that is good, wholesome, and pure in the world.
The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray, Video Quality
The National Parks: America's Best Idea arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080i, 1.78:1-framed transfer. Unfortunately, the imagery doesn't hold a candle to the beauty of Planet Earth, but it does hold up nicely through the majority of the film. Much of the natural footage is abuzz with grain, resulting in backgrounds -- particularly bright blue skies -- that are anything but static. However, considering the film's original 16mm elements, this aspect of the transfer appears in-line with what viewers should expect from the source. Said footage does tend to look a bit flat and uninspired, and the color palette seems slightly dim, though such observations don't tend to distract from the overall feel all that much. Fortunately, fine detail is generally excellent; rock faces in particular feature astonishing textures. The interview segments fare the best; generally comprised of static shots of various individuals speaking to the camera, colors appear bold, details in faces and clothing pleasant, and various anomalies absent. Likewise, the many still photographs are nicely rendered, though they're limited to the original source, much like some of the archival film and television footage scattered about the series, particularly in later episodes. The end result, despite some better-than-average imagery, is a transfer that often looks more like a midrange high definition over-the-air broadcast. All in all, there's no doubt that some viewers expecting the next Planet Earth -- strictly in terms of the visual presentation -- will walk away from The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray disappointed, but the visuals as represented here capture the film about as best as once could expect of the entirety of the source material.
The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The National Parks: America's Best Idea features a clear and surprisingly engaging Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack. For the most part, the film delivers front-heavy and center-focused sounds, with dialogue the primary sonic feature. The Spoken word is superbly reproduced; Coyote's voice is strong and crisp, reassuring and soothing, and the lossless soundtrack allows it to sound like a natural and integral piece of the film rather than a detached voiceover. Likewise, various other narrators and speakers in interview clips enjoy strong dialogue delivery. The score is nicely rendered, too; though parts of it sound eerily reminiscent to something out of Joss Whedon's "Firefly," every note is presented with a first-rate clarity that allows the music to effortlessly flow from the front half of the soundstage. This one does have a few surprises up its sleeve. Atmospherics are surprisingly engaging; a gentle breeze seems to blow around the soundstage in places, and birds may be heard chirping from any corner of the listening area. Both -- and many other -- effects do a marvelous job of creating a seamless atmosphere that's wonderfully supportive of the film's grandiose visuals. Though certainly not the most integral aspect of this or most any other Documentary, the lossless soundtrack accompanying The National Parks: America's Best Idea is, surprisingly, one of its best features.
The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The National Parks: America's Best Idea features supplements spread across each of the six discs in this set. Below is a disc-by-disc breakdown of what's included.
Disc one features but a lone extra, The Making of 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea' (1080i, 25:24, also available in Spanish and with Spanish subtitles). It contains Documentarians Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, and others -- scattered about excerpts from the series -- sharing their thoughts on the film, the subject material and why they chose to tell the story of America's National Parks, and more. Only a few true behind-the-scenes video segments are included, and they chronicle the filmmaking process from Alaska to Hawaii and everywhere in between.
Like disc one, disc two features but a single extra. Capturing the Parks (1080i, 23:34) follows Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, and crew recalling the process of capturing the footage. The piece examines the importance of cinematography to this particular feature, introduces many of the people that worked behind the camera, discusses the process of shooting in general and the force of nature in the shooting process in particular, and the traveling to some of the most awe-inspiring locations around the country.
Disc three contains Musical Journeys Through the National Parks, a piece divided into six segments that feature various imagery set to music: National Parks Timeline (1080i, 8:51), Peace at Last/Across the Ocean (1080i, 5:31), Horizons (1080i, 2:09), Green Groves of Erin (1080i, 3:14), The Shores of Ogygia (1080i, 2:33), and Teddy Bears' Picnic (1080i, 3:14).
Included on disc four are two outtakes: An Interview With Nevada Barr (1080i, 7:17) and 'The Boss' (1080i, 10:24), the story of Casa Grande conservationist Frank Pinkly.
Available with optional Spanish audio and subtitles, disc five features The National Parks: This is America (1080i, 44:20). More an extension to the film proper rather than a separate endeavor, this piece features continued interview clips, footage, and narration recalling tales of and the history behind America's National Parks. It's almost like a very condensed version of the entire film, and might serve nicely as a period-long piece for classrooms engaged in the study of the National Parks.
Finally, disc six features perhaps the best collection of extras found throughout the entire series. Again delivered with optional Spanish audio and subtitles, Contemporary Stories from America's National Parks offers a collection of five pieces that offer further tales of America's Best Idea. Included are San Antonio Missions: Keeping History Alive (1080i, 12:09), Yosemite's Buffalo Soldiers (1080i, 11:30), Mount Rushmore: Telling America's Stories (1080i, 9:35), Manzanar: 'Never Again' (1080i, 14:16), and City Kids in National Parks (1080i, 13:45).
The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The first Ken Burns documentary to appear on Blu-ray, The National Parks: America's Best Idea may not top the filmmaker's earlier and best efforts -- Baseball, The Civil War, or Jazz -- but as either an introduction to his quality style of work, the thoroughness of his endeavors, or his uncanny ability to fully articulate on the subject without the tedium generally associated with history at such an in-depth level, they don't come much better than this. Smartly crafted, easily digested, and taking its audience through a thorough and thoroughly rewarding journey not just through America's National Parks but, by extension, America herself, The National Parks: America's Best Idea is not only vintage Ken Burns but worthy and must-see filmmaking. This joint PBS/Paramount Blu-ray release lacks the pristine high definition imagery one might expect of a nature-based documentary (particularly considering the breathtaking visuals of Planet Earth), but it does feature a quality lossless soundtrack and a fine array of bonus features. The National Parks: America's Best Idea comes highly recommended.
The National Parks: America's Best Idea Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Deal of the Day: Ken Burns' The National Parks Blu-ray $48.99 (Ex... - November 7, 2010
This Sunday, Amazon has an interesting Blu-ray related deal of the day: up to midnight PST, you can order Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea for only $48.99 (62% off MSRP). The price history shows that this is the cheapest this six-disc documentary ...
• BB Deal of the Day: National Parks Blu-ray for $39.99 - October 5, 2010
Best Buy has an interesting BD-related deal of the day going on now. Today only, you can buy Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea for only $39.99 (69% off MSRP). This six-disc documentary box set is currently $72.99 at Amazon, and its price history ...
• BB Deal of the Day: National Parks Blu-ray for $40 (Expired) - June 2, 2010
Best Buy has an interesting BD-related deal of the day going on now. Today only, you can buy Ken Burns' The National Parks: America's Best Idea for only $40 (69% off MSRP). This six-disc documentary box set is currently $73.49 at Amazon, and its price history there ...
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