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PBS Home Video presents
Ken Burns' America: Huey Long (1985)

"In politics it's always two sides, like night and day. You can't have politics without two sides. And he was always on the winning side. It was good if you agreed with him, and if you didn't, oh boy."
- Leona Guirard

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: September 28, 2004

Stars: Huey Long, David McCullough
Other Stars: Russell Long, Robert Penn Warren, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., I.F. Stone
Director: Ken Burns

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:28m:31s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 097368857544
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It's often said that politics is tremendously polarized today, with hatred between the various parties. But they don't have anything on the first American dictator, Huey P. "Kingfish" Long, who was either warmly loved or hotly despised, depending on whether you were on Long's side. And as strong as the sentiments of others were towards Long, the feelings of Long were just as powerful, and he was in an absolute position to act upon his will and had no compunctions about doing so.

This documentary by Ken Burns follows Long from his childhood to his meteoric rise as a salesman and lawyer into Louisiana government. Quickly becoming governor, he then ran for U.S. Senator and ended up holding both posts simultaneously. Even after relinquishing the governorship, he kept absolute control over the state government, in part through the power of the "Deduct Box," which funneled ten percent of every state employee's salary into his own campaign coffers.

The contradictions that made up Long's life are well-depicted here. For every horror story of his corruption and power-mad villainy, there are reminiscences of the poor who loved him for building good roads, funding schools, and providing jobs. Perhaps the most notable of his schemes was his "Share Our Wealth" campaign, which advocated a forcible redistribution of wealth, which was certainly more than a little appealing at the height of the Great Depression. Perhaps the thing most remembered about Long today is his assassination at the hands of Dr. Carl Weiss; Burns does what he can with it but there's little known for certain about Weiss' motivations, or even if he was really the assassin for certain. Immediately shot to death by Long's armed goons, Weiss left no indications that he was going to assassinate Long or if so, why. But Burns does manage to record the recollections of one surviving eyewitness, as well as the nurse who took care of Long in his last hours.

The style is the usual Burns method, with smooth narration by David McCullough, photos and talking heads, here intermingled with footage of Long speaking for himself. From these newsreel segments it's clear that he was charismatic and charming, putting on a facade of the likable doofus and countrified clown when he was really as vicious a shark as was ever known to politics. Since Long was immortalized in All the King's Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren, it's appropriate that Warren gets in a few remarks here, as do sworn enemies I.F. Stone and Mrs. Hodding Carter. Long's side is told by his son Sen. Russell Long, his sister and many of the downtrodden for whom Long was a hero. It's a fascinating tale of Greek tragic proportions, and Burns doesn't disappoint in his presentation.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

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

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture is quite attractive, with a clear and well-detailed picture. The period films are understandably less than pristine, but the modern interview segments all look fine, if a shade soft. Color is good and black levels are quite acceptable for television.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono sound is unremarkable for the most part. A mild electronic buzz can be detected at higher volume levels, and a slight hiss can be heard at reference. Nothing to seriously complain about.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 7 cues and remote access
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: A pair of featurettes give a little background on Burns, though not specifically focusing on this documentary. Ken Burns: Making History (7m:15s) looks at the filming of the Lewis & Clark series, discussing the methods for selecting voiceovers, music and Burns' long-term relationship to PBS. The second featurette, a conversation with Burns (12m:22s) discusses his body of work in general terms. They're not terribly enlightening but passable for what they are. Chaptering is quite thin.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

A surprisingly even-handed look at the Kingfish, given an adequate transfer and some mildly interesting extras.


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