documentary on the American Civil War. The approach is deceptively simple at first sight: instead of adopting an educational, omniscient tone in telling the history of the civil war Burns lets the protagonists of the story talk themselves, through voiceovers of letters, newspaper articles, diaries, and witness' accounts. The result - rather like in my favourite non-fiction book, Tristram Hunt's The English Civil War: At First Hand - feels much more authetic and direct to the audience, who feels included in the story, like standing at the centre of these events.
The accumulation of documents in the film is impressive: thousands of newspaper cuts, declarations, photographs, litographts, etc, are paraded in front of the viewer's eyes while the voices of familiar actors like Derek Jacobi, Julie Harris and Sam Waterson bring out the characters of hundreds of mayor and minor players in the combat. From Abraham Lincoln's views on what freedom means to the poignant letter of a soon-to-be-killed private to his wife, The American Civil War (1990) leaves nothing out, its fastidious obsession with detail make for 680 fascinating minutes. This is an in-depth work, not a general lecture of the subject. It's a balanced view, giving voice to both parts, the Union and the Confederates, with sympathy and rigor.
And it is a beautiful film as well. It becomes apparent in the first few minutes of the first episode ("The Cause", in which we see how the growning division on the slavery debate poised the North states against the South) that Ken Burns is filmmaker with a brilliant eye. Almost the whole documentary consists on archive material and yet Burns' (and his editor Paul Barnes) genius manages to make these still images and their rhythm seem absolutely stunning.
There's also the nice choice of David McCullough - one of the best and better respected writers of American history books - as the narrator. If the expression "a must see" still retained some meaning I'd say this is a must see.