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PBS Home Video presents
Ken Burns' America: Brooklyn Bridge (1981)

"The lands be welded together."
- Walt Whitman, writing about the Brooklyn Bridge

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: September 28, 2004

Stars: David McCullough, Lewis Mumford, Arthur Miller, Paul Goldberger, John A. Roebling, Washington Roebling
Director: Ken Burns

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:58m:36s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 097368858442
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B-B C

DVD Review

This is Ken Burns' first film, which makes it interesting not merely for its subject matter, but also for the ways in which his familiar and later style seems already to have been fully on display here. It's not an epic in the manner that his series on the Civil War or the history of baseball are; it is, rather, a tightly told look at one of the great triumphs of nineteenth-century engineering and its place in our consciousness.

The documentary is overtly inspired by a book on the same subject by David McCullough, who also serves as the narrator, and it's neatly divided into two sections. The first concentrates on the construction of the bridge, which was the brainchild of John A. Roebling, a German immigrant who was a student of Hegel's (!). The philosopher encouraged the young man to find his fortunes in the New World, and Roebling did so, in the steel business; the Brooklyn Bridge was to be his greatest triumph, but alas, he died a month into construction, from tetanus, for he would not let his wounds be treated. (He built a beautiful bridge, but had some odd ideas.) Taking the reins of the project, then, was Roebling's son Washington, who oversaw construction from a Brooklyn Heights apartment a few blocks away; part invalid, part agoraphobe, he never personally walked across the bridge he built.

The second part is a brief look at the bridge in the American popular imagination, in both high art (Joseph Stella, Walker Evans) and low (Bugs Bunny, Laurel and Hardy); in an uncanny coincidence, Washington Roebling's apartment was later occupied by Hart Crane, who wrote some of his finest verse about the bridge. The bridge seems to inspire poetry, and dreams, and to bring out all that's best and most majestic about New York and America; it's also very, very beautiful, as generations of us can attest, though in its day it generated no shortage of tchatchkes and advertisements.

Burns presents the historical information with clarity, and he's established his house style, with lingering shots on archival photographs, well-chosen period music, and actors reading from newspapers, letters and journals of the period. It's not everything that you could ever want to know about the bridge or its construction—consult McCullough's book for that—but it is a pretty fair overview. Also, looking at Burns' film now, it's hard not to be jarred by his many contemporary shots of the bridge against the Manhattan skyline; made in 1981, this film features many shots of the bridge's late neighbors, the towers of the World Trade Center.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A pretty solid transfer, with occasional resolution problems, and a bit of dullness that seems to have seeped in with the years. It looks at least as good as it does on its many airings on public television.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono track has some hiss, but it's perfectly comprehensible.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Ken Burns: Making History (07m:15s) is a look at the filmmaker at work in Walpole, New Hampshire, with his production team, talking about actors doing voice-over work; it's got a puffy, PBS pledge drive sort of feel to it. A Conversation with Ken Burns (12m:11s) further elucidates his working methods and his choice of subject matter; he's especially touching talking about the death of his mother, when he was 12. Only the very last portion of this interview is specifically about Brooklyn Bridge.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Try before you buy—that is, if somebody's offering you a deal on the Brooklyn Bridge, you should probably check out Ken Burns' rookie effort first instead.


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