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PBS Home Video presents
Ken Burns' America: The Congress (1988)

"Congress is the first branch of government in the sense that it is the reminder that people in a republic are supposed to do their own business. They are not supposed to abdicate their business to someone else."
- Barbara Fields

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: September 28, 2004

Stars: David McCullough, Charles McDowell, Barbara Fields, John Steanis, Alistair Cooke, Cokie Roberts, David Broder, George Tames, James MacGregor Burns
Other Stars: Julie Harris, Derek Jacobi, Paul Roebling, Arthur Miller, Garrison Keillor, Kurt Vonegut, Douglas Turner Ward, Shelby Foote, Walt McPherson, Chris Murray, Wendy Tilghman, Jerome Dempsey, Ronnie Gilbert
Director: Ken Burns

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:29m:22s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 097368859043
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B+B B-

DVD Review

It is too bad that The Congress, a documentary by Ken Burns, is not a massive eight to ten hour event. Thankfully the home video version contains an additional half-hour of footage that did not air when it premiered on PBS back in 1988. The 90-minute running time gives just enough room for Burns to encapsulate the 200-year history of the United States Congress, which makes for an education (if not entirely fulfilling) experience.

The opening is a sequence of different shots of the Capitol dome at sunrise. A beautiful orange glow glistens across the waters of the Potomac River and strikes that gorgeous structure, making it reminiscent of Roman ruins. As Ken Burns and his crew point out, there is an almost mythical quality to the Congress. In 1789, it was a massive departure from the historical precedents of earlier civilizations. For the first time in the civilized world, a government was constructed that allowed for the people to take care of their own business by both serving in office and voting to decide who would serve in office.

The Congress does a great job of conveying the significance of the institution, mixing analysis by historians and journalists with voiceover re-enactments of the statements of our founding fathers. One of the most interesting stories told in this documentary is that George Washington, as president, entered into the capital, which at that time was in New York City, with a treaty he expected to be ratified instantly. Perhaps shocking for that time, the congress and its body told him he would have to wait until they evaluated and debated the treaty. After two days of debate, the members of the assembly ratified the treaty (our country's first under the Constitution) and this potent republic began to actualize. As time passed, the Congress' body grew larger and more robust. Using period photographs, Burns gives an overview of key figures; the likes of William Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, often studied in history classes, are given their much deserved screen time. However, there are also some figures and events discussed here that do not often get much exposure. The problem, however, is that there is so much going on that it is difficult to keep track of each individual person being mentioned along the way. Burns is condensing 200 years into only 90 minutes, which means that some figures in history receive no more than 30 seconds of screen time and become lost in the shuffle.

Watching this film, in retrospect, shows that Ken Burns' later work on The Civil War was an inevitable counterpart to this piece. Much of the first half of the story is dedicated to the issue of Congress' response (or, more accurately, its lack of response) to slavery. The images of slaves working on the construction of the capital when it was moved to D.C. in 1819 (after it was burned by the British during the War of 1812) stir up strong emotions, reminding the viewer of the great injustice committed for all those long years. Unfortunately, Burns spends too much time on this subject and it really belongs in a documentary about the war (which, as already mentioned, it eventually did). Once the Civil War ended, Congress continued its job and its reconstruction of the country. Burns quickly covers the Bosses, political corruption, the Progressives, the HUAC, Civil Rights, and finally the Watergate hearings. A few of the figures mentioned here will be familiar to some, but many will be new. One such person is "Foul Mouth" Joe Cannon, shown in old silent clips, a conservative Speaker of the House that strong-armed the representatives for many years.

Sadly none of the figures in the history of Congress makes a lasting impression with the viewer, because there is just not enough time. The fact that he and his editor, Sally Jo Menke (who later would go on to be Quentin Tarantino's editor), have constructed a coherent story out of this gigantic task is quite an accomplishment. But the concise storytelling that Burns is so well known for is, at times, lost here, particularly towards the end when he meanders a bit too long on the actual structure of the Congress itself. Yet despite these weaknesses, the documentary as a whole is an educational and enjoyable time, ideal for a classroom. It may not be a landmark in historical records, but it does provide a nice stepping-stone for further studies of the United States Congress.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

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

Image Transfer Review: The Congress is shown in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The image is incredibly clean, with the capitol dome looking more beautiful here than in any other documentary. Depth and colors are strong, making this a satisfying visual experience.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby stereo sound mix is spread across the front soundstage and has a nice ambience. The musical score sounds great, as do the audio clips of people speaking in the chambers. The voiceover work is well handled in this mix, creating a pleasant listening environment.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The extras here are the same as the others in the Ken Burns' America Collection. There are two featurettes, the first is Ken Burns: Making History (7m:15s) and contains video footage of the man and his talented crew as they mix audio and shoot photographs. The featurette is structured by comments Burns makes about how to make these documentaries and his motivation for continuing down this path. He shares some interesting information, making this a nice bonus feature. The other featurette is A Conversation With Ken Burns (12m:12s) in which he talks more about his bigger projects, like Baseball and The Civil War, and his reason for telling those stories.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Ken Burns' telling of America's Congress is a treat, with a lot of information and impressive filmmaking. The subject matter is so vast that his trademark mini-series approach would have done it more justice, but this is a nice starting point for any investigation of the Congress. The image and sound are pleasing and the extras are a nice bonus.


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