Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns doesn’t rewrite history. He brings the past to life.
It’s a loaded question, but pause for a moment and think about it: What is America’s best idea ever? It’s a polemical query, the answer to which is defined in generational terms. “The iPod!” says your 12-year-old. “The Internet!” says Generation X. “The elevator!” your grandfather might say. “The movie projector! Or the phonograph!” says Thomas Edison from the grave. A lot of life-changing ideas have come from within the shores of the United States, but at least two people think that none of the aforementioned things are America’s best ideas. One of those people is Pulitzer Prize–winning author Wallace Stegner, whom you likely haven’t heard of, but the other is documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whom you surely have heard of.
Burns sees eye-to-eye with Stegner, who once wrote that America’s best idea is the concept of preserving broad swaths of pristine landscapes -- fit for postcards and fenced off from development -- that we, as Americans, collectively own, care for, and enjoy, ideally for years and years to come. In other words, the concept of national parks. “They reflect us at our best rather than our worst,” Stegner says. The fact that this idea of preserving land for the people, by the people came from an American hypothesis at all is news to many, but indeed the first national park in the world was Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It was established by an act of Congress that removed the land from public auction, and it was then put into law by the stroke of President Ulysses S. Grant’s pen in 1872.
Today, there are 58 national parks under the domain of the National Park Service, the federal arm created in 1916 to oversee the parks. Burns is putting together a mammoth six-part, 12-hour documentary series that, if his past work is any indication, promises to be the definitive word on the subject. It will offer resounding support to Stegner’s claim while bringing a tear-jerking, much-needed hint of patriotism to the American viewing public in the process. Fiercely ethnocentric, heartstrings inspirational, national-address engaging, and extraordinarily comprehensive, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is quintessential Burns.