History is still the greatest dramatist, and "The Civil War" is great history and great drama. "Documentary" is too stodgy a word for the living document that filmmaker Ken Burns has created.
In a bold bit of scheduling, PBS will air Burns's 11-hour epic "Roots"-like over five consecutive nights, starting tonight at 8, on Channels 26 and 32, two episodes per night in most cases. Channel 32 has produced its own short features called "Civil War: Sketches in Color," about area sites notable in black history, and will air them prior to each night's installment and during breaks between episodes that run back to back on the same night.
Vast and fascinating, "The Civil War" took five years to make, and production costs totaled more than $3.5 million -- with General Motors the sole corporate underwriter. But this achievement is one best measured by the impact it will have on the millions who see it.
The program, co-produced by Washington's WETA-TV, is the finest thing PBS has done since "Eyes on the Prize" and its sequel. From a cataclysmic national ordeal, Burns has made a grippingly powerful film about who we were, who we are, and who we yet may be.
He evokes the war years through paintings and photographs and in words from diaries, letters and speeches read on the soundtrack by such distinctive voices as Jason Robards (Ulysses S. Grant), Morgan Freeman (Frederick Douglass) and Julie Harris (Southern diarist Mary Chesnut).
Sam Waterston reads the words of Abraham Lincoln, and among those giving voice to letters from those who fought the war, from generals to grunts, are dulcet baritones Garrison Keillor and Jody Powell. Of the enormous cast of voices, only one, Studs Terkel, hams things up.
This "bloodiest war in American history" was one that both sides thought would be over in 90 days. Tennessean Shelby Foote, by far the most prominently featured expert appearing in the series, calls the war "the crossroads of our being." It didn't start out to be about slavery but it ended up being about that and, says historian Barbara J. Fields, "about humanity, about human dignity, about human freedom."
This was, she says, "the moment that made the United States as a nation." Foote recalls that before the war, people spoke of the United States in the plural: "The United States are ..." After the war, it became "The United States is ..."
You could spend your life studying this war, as Foote appears to have done, and not learn all there is to learn, so 11 hours, as long as that may sound, is of necessity a radical condensation. Even so, there is an abundance of rich material -- things one may never have known or things forgotten since high school, stories and anecdotes that illuminate and entertain.
Mere facts one can get from a book. What's so vital and rewarding about the film is the way Burns makes you feel the war and the wartime world, the way he evokes the experience of those who lived through it, and those who died in it. More than 600,000 did -- two from disease for every one who succumbed to battle wounds.
There are stories of terror and squalor -- of hogs feeding on the remains of those who died at Shiloh, of soldiers entertaining themselves in camp by racing lice across plates, of New Orleans women standing on balconies so they could pour chamber pots on the heads of Yankee occupiers below, of "Headquarters, USA," a nickname for one of the 450 whorehouses servicing servicemen in the nation's capital.
If it was a time of bloodshed and divisiveness, it was also a time of gallantry -- on both sides -- and rebirth. It was a time when technology that seems primitive now changed the nature and scope of warfare. It was a time when the relatively new invention of photography changed the way people saw themselves.
And as "The Civil War" makes clear again and again, it was a time of eloquence -- of Lincoln and Walt Whitman and Robert E. Lee, the brilliant Confederate general who said, "It is well that war is so terrible or we should grow fond of it." The last words of Stonewall Jackson are supposed to have been, "Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of a tree."
The generals alone constitute a robust rogues' gallery, from a Union general too fat to ride a horse, to the bourbon-guzzling genius Grant, to the pompous incompetent George McClellan, to the fiery-tongued William Tecumseh Sherman, who thought journalists were worse than spies and growled, "These dirty newspaper scribblers have the impudence of Satan."
Then there was writer-historian Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, who looked at the new armaments and arsenals he saw around him and wrote with chilling prescience, "I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Someday, science shall have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world."
But the most affecting words are those that come from the soldiers themselves, none sweeter nor more wrenching than the letter that ends Part 1 tonight. Actor Paul Roebling reads words written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island volunteers to his wife back home on July 14, 1861, a week before Bull Run:
"I know how American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us, through the blood and suffering of the revolution... . If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name... ."
And that's only the beginning.
Burns's technique is pure and ungimmicked. There are no glitzy attempts to animate photographs, there are no actors running around in costumes, there is no passing off scenes from Hollywood movies as if they were historically valid. It is no small talent simply to know how long to leave a picture on the screen. Burns is nearly unerring at this, and at orchestrating voices, music, sound effects -- and even dead silence, as during a brief sequence on embalming in Episode 6.
Where no words are needed, there are no words, as when the camera pans a photograph of a slave's viciously whip-scarred back during a prologue on America as it existed before war broke out.
In terms of content, Burns seems to have made mostly unimpeachable choices. One area where one might hope to have learned more is about the black regiments, especially since the splendid movie "Glory," just out on videotape, stirred so much interest in the subject.
Attention is paid to the role women played, not only the meticulous diarist Chesnut, but also Clara Barton, later founder of the Red Cross, and Dorothea Dix, the nurse who served through the entire war without pay. Her recruitment standards for nurses were so severe, narrator David McCullough says, that "even nuns were sometimes turned down."
Burns and fellow writers Ric Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward don't have to strain for relevance to the present day. It comes naturally from the material. During the Civil War, the draft began, and the ironclad warship was to its time almost what the nuclear submarine would be to ours. Mathew Brady's photographs of bodies at Antietam, shown at a New York gallery, shocked civilians about war the way TV pictures of Vietnam would shock citizens of a later time.
Increasingly, it seems, newspaper columns and TV newscasts are dominated by those who would exacerbate and exploit divisiveness, whether along racial, ethnic, religious or cultural lines. Here in this film is a re-creation of the greatest schism of all.
A nation that survived that can perhaps survive anything.
There were not yet motion picture cameras on battlefields, but there is some historical film in the series, including footage of 1913 and 1938 reunions of veterans of Gettysburg. Burns also shot new film at sites that seem to look essentially unchanged by the intervening century -- mostly auburn twilights on creeks and rivers, or the moon hanging over a silent field.
Watching it all go by, such a grim and turbulent pageant -- a blood rite such as few nations have endured -- it's almost impossible not to have at least the occasional spiritual thought. The Union, repeatedly, came incredibly close to dissolution. What saved it? Military strategy? Lincoln's political maneuvers? Or something more?
After one of his battles, Stonewall Jackson said to an associate, "He who does not see the hand of God in this is blind, sir, blind."
"The Civil War" tells its momentous story with new intimacy and new immediacy. In doing that, it becomes intimately momentous itself. This is not just good television, nor even just great television. This is heroic television.