Ken Burns’s latest film is “Hemingway.” Co-directed with Lynn Novick, it airs on PBS over three nights, starting Monday. By Burns’s sea-to-shining-sea standards, “Hemingway” is a fairly small piece of documentary real estate: just a single person as subject, the novelist Ernest Hemingway, and clocking in at a tidy 5½ hours. Compare that to the 16 hours of his “Country Music” (2019).
It’s been four decades since Burns’s directorial debut, “Brooklyn Bridge” (1981). Large as the filmography is, it’s still growing. Next up is a documentary about Muhammad Ali. It’s a body of work with numerous remarkable moments. Here are six of them, along with a remarkable voice.
Baseball (1994) A little more than four minutes into the first of the documentary’s nine “innings” — there’d be a a “Tenth Inning” sequel, in 2010 — Burns cuts from a black-and-white photo of a demolished Ebbets Field, in Brooklyn, to a night-time aerial shot of Fenway Park. It’s in color, with the camera advancing from the south. It could keep going north all the way to Santa’s Workshop at the Pole and still not present a more glorious sight of promised bliss. Play ball? Play ball! Available on Apple TV and YouTube.
Jazz (2001) What may be the most astonishing moment in all the many hours of film Burns has directed occurs near the end of the first of this documentary’s 10 episodes. Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band is quoted thusly, from 1936: “the Negroes learned to play this rhythm and music from the whites. The Negro did not play any kind of music equal to white men at any time.” Burns cuts to a close-up of Wynton Marsalis, one of the film’s most prominent talking heads. LaRocca was white. “Well,” says Marsalis, who is Black.
Marsalis’s expression combines shock, dismay, amusement, stupefaction, and something like resignation. He remains wordless for 14 seconds. A lesser filmmaker would have cut straight to Marsalis’s eventual response. Instead, Burns holds the close-up. Fourteen seconds isn’t long in life. Onscreen it feels like an eternity. Burns knows this. The eloquence of Marsalis’s silence is almost unbearable. Burns knows this, too. Available on pbs.org and YouTube.
The War, co-directed with Novick (2007) At 16, Glenn Frazier enlisted in the Army. He survived the Bataan Death March and spent the rest of World War II in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He appears several times over the course of the 14 hours of this from-the-ground-up view of life on the home front and in the enlisted ranks. Frazier’s final appearance comes at the very end of “The War.” He recounts a telephone call so delightful and charming it’s worthy of classic screwball comedy. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube.
The Dust Bowl (2012) Burns has a knack for finding articulate and engaging individuals to recall historical events they lived through. That’s especially the case in this film about the environmental disaster that befell the Great Plains in the 1930s. We hear from people who were children then, like Calvin Crabill, Dorothy Kleffman, and the Coen brothers. No, not those Coen brothers — and their account of the death of their baby sister has more human feeling than can be found in all their namesakes’ films put together. Available on Amazon Prime and pbs.org.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014) Burns’s talents extend to casting director. Would you have thought of Meryl Streep as the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt? Burns did, and she’s uncannily good. Never mimicking Roosevelt, Streep nevertheless manages to convey an utterly persuasive sense of character and personality. (In “Hemingway,” Streep supplies the voice of the writer’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn.) Available on pbs.org and Vudu.
Jackie Robinson, co-directed with Sarah Burns and David McMahon (2016) Note the wattage of the smile that spreads across the face of talking head Barack Obama when fellow talking head Michelle Obama cites the crucial role of Robinson’s wife, Rachel, in her husband’s success. “It’s a sign of his character that he chose a woman who was his equal,” the first lady says. That smile comes from a man who knows. (Rachel Robinson turns 99 in July.) Available on Amazon Prime.
The Vietnam War, co-directed with Novick (2017) Few filmmakers have used music better, and what may be the most mind-bending moment in these 18 hours involves a Beatles song. During the Tet Offensive, the Communists captured the South Vietnamese national radio station. A quick-witted technician switched wires before propaganda could be broadcast. What went over the air was Viennese waltzes and the Beatles. We hear the doominess of “Tomorrow Never Knows” played over footage of the fighting. The clash of sound and image is unforgettable — and very Ken Burns. Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.