Review: The Dust Bowl, a Film by Ken Burns

When the good earth went bad.

By , Columnist

There are numerous dangers that a reviewer must avoid while doing their work, chief among them the impulse to simply dismiss a work because of preconceived notions or prejudices that can taint their viewpoint. Too often a work is given short shrift simply because it happens to fall within the confines of a genre or particular medium that has been deemed beneath serious consideration—and therefore unworthy of unprejudiced critical investigation—by those self-appointed gatekeepers of haute culture.

However, there’s another danger, one that must be avoided at all cost by reviewers of any and all artistic work — specifically, the urge to declare a work the pinnacle of genius without it passing the same tests that all art should be subjected to when considering its real worth. Typically, this occurs because the work was issued by one of the widely accepted sources of brilliance in their given field.

In many ways, that is the position that documentarian Ken Burns now occupies. Quite simply, he’s perhaps the single best purveyor of a certain type of Americana, namely the long, detailed look at specific turning points in the history of these United States that illuminates how we got where we are today even as it sheds light on the specific workings of our cultural past. There may be other filmmakers who are more skilled at their craft, or more dogged in their pursuit of previously hidden facts, but there are none who are so capable of providing viewers with a real sense of both the larger scope and the smaller, human elements that underpin a particular moment in history. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s able to do so with a concision that allows even the most casual of viewers to grasp the shape of the whole story in a way that does no disservice to those individuals for whom the event in question was more than mere history, but instead constituted their lives.

His latest effort, The Dust Bowl, is a perfect example of how Burns weaves historical facts together with individual biographies to create emotional and educational effects that most films, fictional or otherwise, fail to achieve. That, despite the fact that his methodology really is quite straightforward—find the center of the story, examine the actions and experiences of those living there, and wrap it all within an exploration of the larger moment. It really is as simple, and simultaneously complex, as that.

In this instance, he follows the lives of a group of families whose farms happened to be at the epicenter of the Dust Bowl which ravaged the heart of this country throughout the 1930s. By allowing the viewer access to these survivors and their stories, told in their own words in interviews and correspondence, Burns puts a human face on what might otherwise become a dry recital of events and consequences; more tellingly, he also allows us to consider the real human cost of that terrible time, truths etched upon his subject’s faces if not their very souls.

Yes, the factual numbers and dates are important. The short-sighted decisions by both the individual and the collective which led to that most terrible of man-made ecological disasters in US history are noteworthy and should provide a real warning to all of us today. All of those and other, larger concerns are laid out over the course of the documentary, and should be taken to heart and remembered and taught so we might never again destroy the very land we love and rely upon for our very lives.

But, ultimately, it’s the haunted and haunting memories shared that have the biggest, most telling impact and which matter the most—tales of family lost to the dust storms and resulting diasporas, of fathers and mothers and their children injured or broken by unrelenting desperation and deprivation and worse. It’s that, and the counterintuitive, uplifting knowledge that, no matter how improbable it might seem, we are capable of much, much more than we ever give ourselves credit for—the will to endure, to survive, and even thrive despite the worst of circumstances—that gives real weight to this film.

It’s that quality that makes The Dust Bowl such an important addition to the cinematic canon. It’s also what makes this film not just worthy, but also necessary viewing. This is a documentary that should be viewed repeatedly, so that its lessons can be discussed and given due consideration by every American, young and old, throughout this great land.  

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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