Ken Burns, the diminutive and delicate-boned nonfiction filmmaker, may be the documentary world’s answer to Muhammad Ali: a consummate showman compelled to grapple with iconic heavyweights from "The Civil War" to "Baseball" to "The Brooklyn Bridge." And as each successive film has been proclaimed the definitive take on an American institution, he has become the unchallenged chronicler of record in his field and an American icon in his own right.
But for all his accomplishments, his films have largely gone ignored by the Academy. It’s been almost thirty years since his last Oscar nomination, for 1985’s “The Statue of Liberty” -- and he received only one previous nod, in 1981, for “Brooklyn Bridge.” This past year, he looked poised to break his slump with “The Central Park Five,” a film he co-directed with his daughter, Amy, investigating the wrongful convictions of five teenagers in the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park and the case’s lasting implications of institutionalized racism in New York’s justice system. But despite the project’s series of headline-grabbing developments that could still influence the outcome of the exonerated men’s ongoing case against the City of New York, “The Central Park Five” did not make the cut to be included among the five films nominated for Best Documentary this past year.
It’s strange but not unheard of for the Academy to repeatedly snub preeminent talents. And Burns' empty mantle puts him in the company of such geniuses as Robert Altman, Federico Fellini, and Alfred Hitchcock. But it remains a mystery that a film as culturally relevant and critically embraced as “The Central Park Five,” which is now out on DVD, would go unrecognized among this year’s Oscar nominees.
Of course, some of this oversight has to do with the fact that many of Burns’ most acclaimed projects were made for PBS and debuted on TV, which disqualifies them for Oscar consideration. And consequently, Burns has received plenty of Emmy Awards love over the years, taking home trophies for “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” and “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
With “The Central Park Five” now widely available, this seems like an opportune moment to make up for the Academy’s negligence and offer our own tribute to the expanse of history he’s covered in his vast body of work. Here’s our playlist of five essential Ken Burns films and series to get you started. Be forewarned: Burns mines emotional moments out of subject matter you’d never imagine could yield a single tear. Keep a supply of hankies handy.
Narrated by uber-historian, David McCullough, whose book chronicling the engineering feats, setbacks and human toll exacted throughout the construction of the landmark bridge formed the inspiration and basis for the Brooklyn native’s debut film. In this emotionally riveting account of the groundbreaking building project, Burns brings history alive combining live readings of diaries and letters with his trademark technique of using a live camera footage of still photographs and the bridge itself.
“The Civil War”
This was the film that placed Burns at the head of his class of a new generation of nonfiction filmmakers. By tackling a broad and seemingly dry topic as the war between the states, his film became the rare must-watch PBS event with its highly sentimental and romantic eleven-hour exploration of the war’s enduring impact on our national identity. The series left viewers with an indelibly vivid portrait of our history of violence through an intimate look at the lives and loves lost along the way to a fragile sense of national unity.
“Lewis & Clark: Journey of the Corps Discovery”
Narrated by Hal Holbrook, this survey of Lee Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s military expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific coast captures the hardships and vast natural wonders that greeted the explorers on their journey West. Burns retraces Lewis and Clark’s route with his camera, offering a visceral experience of what it was like to encounter the soaring peaks of the Rockies and Sierras among the vast untamed wilds of the western United States.
“Frank Lloyd Wright”
This compact but comprehensive portrait of the legendary architect first debuted at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Burns combined home movies with archival footage and TV clips to distill Wright’s sources of inspiration and his lasting impact on our built heritage.
“National Parks: America’s Best Idea”
This twelve-hour PBS opus makes a compelling case for how the federal government rescued national wonders like Yosemite, the Everglades, and Acadia from destruction at the hands of commercial developers. In its best moments, the series’ breathtaking cinematography and thoughtful narrative (by actor Peter Coyote) plays like an Ansel Adams photograph come to life.