Legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has hit another home run with his latest film, “The National Parks – America’s Best Idea.” The 12-hour, 6-part series explores the human side of the history of America’s National Parks from the first land set aside at Yosemite to the current day in a compelling and visually engaging way.
“America’s Best Idea” takes a chronological approach to the National Parks beginning in the 1800s. In typical Ken Burns style, the visual portion of this film is divided between artful pans across historical photographs, interviews of historians and experts, and (of course) stunning videos of the National Parks captured by his team. The narration is well written is delivered by well-known actors like Peter Coyote and Tom Hanks. Burns fuses quotes from the historical figures seamlessly into the narration, making the story even more compelling. Many of the historical characters profiled in the film are who you would expect, men like John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Ansel Adams, but he spends just as much time sharing the stories of lesser known figures who played a role in the story of specific parks, both good and bad. The historians and experts interviewed all present themselves credibly, and their stories and recounts of history are well-integrated into the rest of the film.
There are two things I really like about this film. First, Burns doesn’t go overboard with the environmental aspect. While the film certainly portrays the conservationists as heroes and certain personalities as villains, it avoids the increasingly familiar “save the planet from the evil humans” theme of many recent nature films. Rather, Burns takes a matter-of-fact approach that should resonate with people of all backgrounds and viewpoints: if we do not set these incredible places aside and protect them, they will not be there for our children. Burns also takes a refreshing middle road when it comes to people in the parks. While he clearly illustrates some of the more egregious acts men have committed to mar the parks, he also recognizes that the parks cannot simply be locked up–the beauty of a National Park is that it exists for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Secondly, Burns does not shy away from the spiritual aspect of the National Parks; rather, he embraces it. Not only does he use quotes from many overtly religious men alongside beautiful instrumental renditions of hymns like “This is My Father’s World,” but he even goes as far as to suggest it is this unseen spiritual dimension of these beautiful places that draws us to them and makes us feel closer to the Creator.
I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this film, though I am glad it aired in 2-hour segments and not all-at-once. Whether you love history or just love the National Parks, you should make time to see this masterpiece. It certainly makes me appreciate each park even more, and now I find myself in National Parks wondering “who were the unsung heroes who made this place possible for me?”
(“The National Parks – America’s Best Idea” originally aired on PBS in September 2009)