History the hard way9/10/2014
Ken Burns, PBS’s favorite documentarian, has long specialized in taking the fun out of great American subjects (jazz, baseball, Mark Twain). His latest, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” (Sunday, 7 p.m.), is less a tribute to President Teddy Roosevelt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt than to Burns himself. Why else would he make the damn thing 14 hours long? The series is a showcase of Burns-ian mannerisms: the slow, sonorous, sentimental narration; the labored treatment of black-and-white photographs; and the hero-worshipping score.
Worst of all is Burns’ contempt for basic storytelling. If I’m watching a documentary about the Roosevelts, I want to hear the words “Spanish American War” in the first hour, and maybe even the words “New Deal” and “Nazis,” too. But God forbid Burns would get around to those subjects any time soon — you know, the stuff a general audience actually cares about. No, he’s going to concern himself with Teddy’s dad’s bowel distress after being turned down for an obscure 19th century civil service job. Why rush when you’ve got another 13 hours to kill?
“American War Generals”
Sunday, 7 p.m. (National Geographic Channel)
This project gathers 11 top generals to weigh in on the U.S. military from Vietnam to today. You might expect tight-lipped commentary from the likes of Wesley Clark, Colin Powell and David Petraeus, who have reputations and political allies to protect. But no — the generals let ‘er rip, dishing on strategic mistakes and wrong-headed commanders. Of Gen. William Westmoreland, who headed up our Southeast Asian disaster, Gen. Barry McCaffrey blurts, “He never understood Vietnam.” Of the George W. Bush administration’s approach to the Iraq War, McCaffrey adds, “I had a sense of hatred for what Secretary Rumsfeld, in particular, did.”
“American War General”s is such a departure from standard military PR that you feel almost insubordinate for enjoying it.
Saturday, 7 p.m. (Lifetime)
In this exceptional TV movie, executive-produced by author Nicholas Sparks, a Missouri rancher named Belle (Lauren Ambrose) stands up for herself and her children during the Civil War. Belle has more than enough conflicts in her life: Her brother fights for the South, while her sister hides slaves for the Underground Railroad. Belle is wooed by the town deputy, Nate (Wes Ramsey), as well as by a wounded Confederate soldier she’s known since childhood. Her neighbor is a cattle-rustler and a sexual predator whose banker-wife wants to foreclose on Belle’s property.
That’d be enough trouble to crush a Southern belle in an old-school Civil War drama, but Belle is no Melanie Wilkes. Ambrose makes her a formidable figure, whether aiming a rifle or hoodwinking her enemies. When Nate arrives with the intention of saving the day, Belle hisses, “I don’t need you to protect me!”
You can say that again. CV
Dean Robbins is a syndicated TV columnist from Madison, Wis. He graduated from Grinnell College. See more of his work at www.thedailypage.com.