The Civil War (1990) Television Review: #TeamShelbyFoote

By: Sarah Shachat (A Toast) –

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It’s not for nothing Leslie Knope is a quilt enthusiast. Ken Burns’ Civil War does not, to its great credit, hinge on the character of Bucky Barnes, or any central figure, cause, or facet of the conflict between the states. Instead, the nine part series crafts a series of frames through which to look at it – people, causes, facets. And folk music. Lots and lots of folk music. The patchwork result is successful at providing a level of intimacy and familiarity with individual people caught up on both sides, as well as appreciation for the scope of the whole capital ‘w’ War.

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That sense of being both vast and close to an event is a difficult balance to achieve. In fairness, the series does has a leg-up by being in large part based on Shelby Foote’s authoritative three volume work on the period – and the advantage of, you know, nine hours runtime to get you from causes to after-effects. But within the documentary’s impeccable, compelling structure, each episode’s focus shifts just enough that The Civil War is primed for binge watching, and/or cramming for an AP final. Though there’s a good balance between voiceover narration, talking head interviews, landscape shots, and the dynamic photographic effect that bears Burns’ name, The Civil War is, in its heart of hearts, in love with words.

Meet the most interesting man in the antebellum world.
Meet the most interesting man in the antebellum world.

The reason to put your money down and/or devote the bandwidth to download it is the impressive cast of actors breathing live into the primary sources, the diaries and letters and proclamations, of the period. The language is, first of all, beautiful. The right kind of person – and you know who you are – runs the risk of getting intoxicated simply on Lincoln’s prose. But even for everyone else, the cast is top-flight, and only dated from the early nineties by counting Arthur Miller and M. Emmet Walsh among its voices, not to mention Sam Waterson, Garrison Keeler, Jeremy Irons, and Laurence Fishburn.

That’s also, really, what all the period music and the guitar-pickin’ score are about, too. Burns understands that you can talk about troop deployments and factory output all you want, but the pathos of North vs. South is this latent, wordless, soulful thing. “Ashokan Farewell,” the main fiddle ballad the film returns to throughout – and which you should not drink to, you still have so much more to give – is invariably deployed to evoke those feelings. And it’s those feelings, the film contends, that get us as close as we can to an understanding of the American Civil War, its context, and legacy.

Verdict

Ken Burns’ The Civil War is a beast and for very good reasons. But even if you’ve only seen the Community spoof, it’s worth checking out an episode or two. Or seven or eight or nine. It’s not so much a history lesson as a window into a vanished world – which is one of the coolest things movies can be.

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The Civil War (1990) Drinking Game

Take a Drink: every time you hear Morgan Freeman’s voice, before Morgan Freeman’s voice was cool.

Take a Drink: every time Shelby Foote has a drink.

Take a Drink: every time the folk music has words in it.

Do a Shot: whenever a prominent figure gets shot.

Finish Your Drink: when you know the Lincoln quote they’re using.

About Sarah Shachat

Lurker who love literature, explosions. Weakness? Taylor Swift.

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