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'The Civil War' review: PBS revives and restores Ken Burns' hit series

Ken Burns' award-winning film

Ken Burns' award-winning film "The Civil War" will be rebroadcast over five consecutive nights this Monday though Friday, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the series' initial broadcast in September 1990. Credit: Florentine Films


WHEN | WHERE Monday to Friday, WNET/13 at 9 p.m.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Ken Burns' now-classic "The Civil War" was seen by 40 million viewers over 11 hours in September 1990, blunting commercial network premieres, while becoming one of the most-watched PBS series in history. Now, after undergoing what's called a "4K" restoration -- in which the original film has been rendered in hi-def, or 3,840 lines of resolution, versus the original 480 lines -- "TCW" is back for a 25th anniversary telecast. And meanwhile, those just coming to this review online, may wish to check out this post: Jay Ungar and the creation of the "Ashokan Farewell." 

MY SAY In 1990, the Cold War had just ended. The two Germanys had united. President George H.W. Bush threatened to go to war with Iraq (on Sept. 11, no less). And then, in the fall -- just as one global threat receded, and another loomed -- a film on the Civil War arrived on a TV set near you.

History was certainly in the air 25 years ago this month, while that great mysterious thing called "the zeitgeist" was on the move. Maybe that's why Burns' film was such an unexpected triumph.

Or maybe there just wasn't much on the other channels worth watching.

Then, there's always this possibility: Burns, his brother Ric and longtime writer and collaborator, Geoffrey C. Ward, accomplished exactly what Burns had always intended -- a visceral, deeply felt film on a long-distant war that lived on in hearts and minds.

The Burns-Ward accomplishment was singular, but they had a little help from their friends, too, like Shelby Foote, the commentator and historian with the slow Mississippi drawl, incomparable insights and mastery of detail. David McCullough's narration was crisp and elegant. The voice cast was mythic -- Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Derek Jacobi, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurence Fishburne, Julie Harris, Studs Terkel, Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor.

Then there was the music, and one short violin piece, a Scottish lament, in particular, "The Ashokan Farewell." Written in the early '80s by upstate Woodstock folk musician and composer Jay Ungar, it would be heard a couple of dozen times over the 11 hours. Haunting and melancholic, "Farewell" was the real magic here.

Will a few extra lines of resolution make "The Civil War" any better? Sure, but hard to imagine how.

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