He liked it, a lot. I'm torn.
Some criticisms are easy. Ken Burns needs an editor, who can cut the nine episodes down to five. There's a lot of material here, but not only is it the most powerful; there's a lot that's less powerful.
There's a lot of Political Correctness here. Some of it is your expected, utterly lacking in subtlety and nuance, roll-your-eyes sort. But some of it was very different. The last episode is mostly - mostly - magic, describing the aftermath of the war and how the veterans tried (and sometimes succeeded) in getting on with their lives. The old movie-real filmclips of the ancient, battle-scarred veterans from the North and the South embracing each other at the 75th anniversary of Gettysburg is incredibly, astonishingly moving.
And then, it is followed by a modern historian talking about how the Civil War is still unfinished, "... so long as some live in houses and some are homeless."
I was surprised at my feelings at this point. While they did not turn to rage, they turned to something very like it. Turning this great National Trauma into a ventriloquist's dummy for modern political skirmishes seemed like digging up the graves of the old veterans. I guess that this is why I no longer watch PBS.
#2 Son was fascinated to hear that his great, great, great grandfather was in Sherman's army, survived the Hornet's Nest at Shiloh, and went on to burn the mill in Roswell, Georgia. We visited that mill when we lived in Roswell, as well as the monument to the Confederate dead, raised by the Daughters of the Confederacy. We didn't talk much about my great, great grandfather, the one who owned this rifle.
And yet it is a powerful, powerful video. The material is mostly from Shelby Foote's monumental The Civil War: A Narrative. It tells the story of the common soldier, and tells it well: at its best, it brings it to life in a way where the dust of the old books is forgotten, and the men speak in their own voices, for a short time returned as flesh and blood, hopes and dreams.
Perhaps it's that I'm older now, perhaps it's that I've lived in the South, but I believe that I understand this conflict better now than I did twenty years ago. While I still feel some vicarious pride at the exploits of my native state's Twentieth Maine at Little Round Top, I also feel the summer sun on Pickett's men, waiting for that terrible charge on the following day. I can see just how far this country has come, and how the South has not only reentered the Union, but in some significant ways has become the backbone of it.
I no longer feel the need to enlist those old veterans in modern battles, but rather let them remain who they were, in their own words.
But I had to come to this realization on my own. Still, while Ken Burns should have done more of this, the video is worth watching. Especially with your 14 year old son. I'll close with Foote, and while this passage from his master work was not included by Burns, the last episode captures its feel. Foote relates the words of Captain Holmes, from Keene New Hampshire, on one of the myriad of Memorial Day gatherings after the war's end:
But even if I am wrong, even if those who are to come after us are to forget all we hold dear, and the future is to teach and kindle its children in ways as yet unrevealed, it is enough for us that to us this day is dear and sacred ... For one hour, twice a year at least - at the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves - the dead come back and live with us. I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth.So let it be written, so let it be done.
Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us at the onset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.