I have just finished sampling the first two hours of filmmaker Ken Burns latest PBS offering "The National Parks: America's Best Idea". Once again, Ken Burns has outdone himself with a film that at least up to this point has met or exceeded my expectations. The National Parks are unique and beloved places near and dear to the hearts of tens of millions of Americans. Burns handles his subject with a great reverence and tangible awe. To my way of thinking "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" is television at its absolute best. I cannot wait to see the remaining 10 hours of this epic documentary.
The first two hour installment of "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" focuses on how the very idea of a National Park was first conceived by a California Senator in the 1860's. Concerned by the effects of commercial interests in the Yosemite Valley Senator John Conness advocated for protection of that vast area. The bill he introduced passed both houses of Congress and with very little fanfare President Abraham Lincoln signed the Bill creating the Yosemite Grant on June 30, 1864. No one involved in this legislative maneuver could have possibly known that what they were doing was laying the foundation for the National Park System of today. In fact, this act would ultimately set a precedent for the 1872 creation of Yellowstone as the America's first national park. I was also quite surprised to learn that Yellowstone was really the first national park established anywhere in the world.
During this first episode Ken Burns also devotes a significant amount of time introducing us to the man who would one day be known as the Father of American National Parks John Muir. Muir had a great love of wild places and spent several years studying and exploring in the Yosemite Valley. He wrote extensively about the geological and natural history of the region. Muir became convinced that unless pristine wilderness areas were protected by the government they would be expolited and ultimately destroyed by all manner of promotors. One need only look at how Niagara Falls had been shamelessly exploited to understand precisely what John Muir and his colleagues were talking about. Muir is generally regarded as the person most responsible for convincing Congress and the American peple to create both Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park in 1890.
As you might expect, in putting together "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" Ken Burns employs the tried and true formula that makes his films so very special and unique. Burns utilizes spectacular new footage of the parks embedded with his signature "pan and scan" of vintage photographs, paintings, sketches and cartoons. He goes on to couple his "eye candy" with illustrative commentary by an impressive stable of experts. Thus, the viewer receives an astonishing amount of information and a fundamental understanding of why Ken Burns and so many other Americans believe so strongly that the National Park System really is "America's Best Idea".
As a result of viewing the first installment of "The National Parks" my wife and I pulled out old photographs of our visits to some of America's National Parks. I suspect this is a scene that will be played out in tens of thousands of homes across America in the coming weeks. If the first night is any indication the rest of this series promises to be a real treat. It is always best to view Ken Burns documentaries during the initial showing as it is devoid of any interruptions or fundraising activity.
Next to "The Civil War" "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" just might turn out to be the best thing Ken Burns has ever produced. I look forward to the remainder of the series with great anticipation. Very highly recommended!
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