Netflix has made one of our favorite pastimes much easier. Watching informative and heart stirring documentaries.
Throughout this past year, we’ve taken in everything from the rockumentary life story of Levon Helm’s last days here on earth, to the soulful tale of the new face of soul, Charles Bradley. The ESPN 30 for 30 series gives a sport-tacular chronicled history of sports ranging from the well known to the unknown. There is a limitless number of political documentaries telling the stories of the world changing to the worst. The Chicago Eight Trial and the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention made us feel like breaking out into protests, while a detailed look at the invention of Jelly Belly brand jelly beans was a jaw breaker of a story.
We swore that each one was better than the last. They were all different and all demanded their own emotional pull, but then there was Ken Burns.
Ken Burns is a documentary genius and the reason for this post. His thorough portrayal and study of each subject, along with the in depth personal experiential journey he takes the viewers on, makes him one of a kind in the world of biographical story telling.
We became aware of Burns through his Civil War series on PBS several years ago. The way he brought the individual stories to the forefront, through letters and photos was a rare glimpse into a time that was without a doubt our nation’s darkest. He didn’t take sides. He didn’t sway from facts. He simply let the story unfold. What he uncovered was a beautiful view of the ugliness of hatred, war and politics. This summer, just as the boys of summer were taking to diamonds across the country, we decided to dive into Burns’ “Baseball” series, which naturally had nine episodes. My dad was a huge baseball fan — especially the Reds — and Duane has a tremendous love for the New York Yankees, but my knowledge of the game’s history was pretty limited until that point. Burns began from the inception of the organized sport. This series takes you through some the legendary players and the evolution of the clubs, the leagues, the reasoning behind the why, how, when and what of the game.
We took a road trip for our anniversary in July. In our hotel room, we started Burns’ “The Dust Bowl.” Not exactly every couple’s idea of an entertaining anniversary, but for us it was the best.
We knew quite a bit about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, but as usual, this presented things we never heard of. The things a generation twice removed endured are just unimaginable. Each time they thought the rain would come, the dirt buried them deeper in grief and agony, yet they endured it to the end. I’m not so sure generations today would be as resilient.
Most recently, we finished “The War” which chronicled the lives of soldiers, their families and citizens from four “typical” American towns during World War II. Since WWII was so broad, with battles being fought all over the globe, centering the story around a limited number of people really helps you learn what average families went through — what it was like waiting to see if your son/husband/father had been killed in action, “Rosie the Riveters” taking their place in factories, African Americans and Japanese citizens who wanted to serve their country, but prejudice and ignorance were their front line of battle on this side of the ocean. Prior to being captured by Japanese, one soldier took off his dog tags and tossed them in the snow covered burial grounds so his family would have some sort of closure. Because of this, his family had assumed the worst. It was not until after the war ended that they found out he had actually survived multiple prison camps and starvation.
Regardless of what it may seem, pain and grief are not the focal points in Burns’ work. In fact, the reaction and ability of the human spirit to overcome the pain and grief are the real focus. Human resiliency and pride are the biggest life preservers in times of struggle. Even when the odds are impossible to overcome, the people who succeeded –whether in war, starvation, poverty, or even in baseball — were the ones who stood firm when they were outnumbered the most.
Not all of the heroes wore a 42 on their jersey, not all of them had medals on their uniforms. Not all of them had a farm at the end of the day. But they all had one thing in common: Their will.