The other night I was searching for something to watch on TV. I flipped over to our Roku option, clicked on Netflix, and started to flip through the Netflix offerings. When I saw to my delight that Ken Burns’ The Civil War was available for free as part of my Netflix subscription, my choice was made.
First broadcast in 1990 — 29 years ago! — The Civil War is, in my book, the best documentary ever made. And while Ken Burns has made many fine documentaries since then, The Civil War remains his masterpiece. From the first strains of Ashokan Farewell that began playing at the beginning of Part One, to the lovely footage of cannons at sunset and the sun-dappled pastoral scenes and shimmering rivers on the battlefields that were drenched in American blood long ago, to the historic photographs of generals, privates, politicians, battle scenes, and the dead and the voice-over readings of speeches, letters, and diary entries of the participants, The Civil War is note-perfect from stem to stern.
Of course, Ken Burns had some great material to work with, but his great achievement was sifting through the enormous historical record and capturing the essence of the titanic, nation-defining struggle in an accessible way. The result is as riveting, as fresh, and as deeply moving now as it was when a nation first watched it, enthralled, during the George H.W. Bush administration. The Civil War tells a powerful story, and as I’ve watched the early episodes this week I’ve found myself rooting for Lincoln and the Union, and bemoaning the inept and egotistical Union generals and all of the early Confederate victories, just as I did almost three decades ago.
Sometimes TV is better the second — or even the third — time around. If you’ve got Netflix, The Civil War is well worth a second look.