May 25, 2008


The Bridge That Built Ken Burns: Review of: Brooklyn Bridge (NICOLAS RAPOLD, May 23, 2008, NY Sun)

"Brooklyn Bridge" marked the debut of the popular mythmaker and PBS stalwart Ken Burns. If something's American, and historical, and big, Mr. Burns has "done" it. The Civil War, baseball, jazz, and, most recently, World War II have all received his signature treatment. "Brooklyn Bridge," which made its premiere at BAM 27 years ago, was the start of it all.

"I learned everything" from the five-year production period of the film, Mr. Burns said recently from the offices of his production company, Florentine Films, in New Hampshire. "I learned how to get inside photographs, how to shoot, the patience of looking from every vantage, day and night."

The 58-minute documentary, which is divided evenly between the embattled construction of the bridge and its reception, bears all the hallmarks of Mr. Burns's style, especially his dynamic use of still photos, extensive readings in voice-over from contemporary documents, and an unabashed tone of wonder about the American endeavor. The historian David McCullough, whose book on the bridge inspired Mr. Burns, and a rosy-cheeked Lewis Mumford sit in to join the chorus.

The result is a stirring record of how engineering know-how and valiant persistence overcame what were often petty obstacles ranging from a bait-and-switch fraud scheme by a steel cable manufacturer to Franco-American suspicion.

But the movie is equally significant for popularizing a certain approach to history on film that, for better or worse, has defined the documentary form for millions of viewers and a generation of filmmakers. Mr. Burns is not shy about wearing that mantle and taking responsibility for a cinematic technique of examining photos that famously became a standard tool on Mac software — the "Ken Burns effect."

"No one ever sold a film with first-person narration or still photos to tell a story," Mr. Burns said of his debut, which was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 1982. "But then it became this huge success."

Back then he could tell a story in an hour too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 25, 2008 8:44 AM

His "Journey of the Corps of Discovery" about the Lewis and Clark expedition is excellent. Of course, his masterpiece is The Old Negro Space Program.

Posted by: djs at May 25, 2008 11:56 PM

Brooklyn Bridge? Gasp! Isn't that in a . . . city?

And, and, and, no choo-choo trains use it! (at least not in many many years)

What gives?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 26, 2008 8:49 AM