This will be a very short review of a very long documentary.
Pare Lorentz in his 1936 classic “The Plow That Broke The Plains” manages to say more in 25 minutes then Ken Burns says in the almost 4 hours of his 2012 documentary “The Dust Bowl.”
How can this be?
It’s not that Ken Burns is a bad documentary film maker. On the contrary, he’s a very good one. But his method, long interviews with the survivors of the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history, is inherently flawed. What made his classic documentary on the Civil War work so well is exactly what weighs The Dust Bowl down.
There are no living witnesses to the United States Civil War. There are living witnesses to the Dust Bowl. Therein, for Burns, was the temptation. When he had his actors read off the letters and diaries of Union and Confederate soldiers, Lincoln or Jefferson Davis, he realized that the people who wrote the originals were long dead. So he had to put the words into a larger historical, and theoretical context. But when he interviews witnesses to the Dust Bowl, all we get are people who don’t fully understand what they saw with their own eyes. Instead of environmental science, we get nostalgia. Instead of thoughtful reflection about settler colonialism –- and Burns doesn’t interview a single Native American –- we get a reaffirmation of American patriotism. How many times can you sit through another white octogenarian talking about what a great work ethnic his parents had?
Burns should have gone back to the 1880s and 1890s and examined people who set the conditions for the Dust Bowl, not its ultimate victims. The Dust Bowl is not without its value. If you’re a high-school teacher by all means show it to your students. But don’t watch it immediately after you see The Plow That Broke The Plains.
It’s like following Dante with Game of Thrones.