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PBS Home Video presents
Ken Burns' America: Statue of Liberty (1985)

"If there is any place on earth that needs light, it is certainly New York."
- Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: September 28, 2004

Stars: David McCullough, Milos Forman, Barbara Jordan, Jerzy Kozinski, James Baldwin, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, Mario Cuomo, Vartan Gregorian, Andrei Codrescu, Jeremy Irons
Director: Ken Burns

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:00m:20s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 794054324129
Genre: documentary

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

DVD Review

Ken Burns seems to have more or less cornered the market on making documentaries about American history (as the boxed set in which you’ll find this DVD attests), and our nation's legacy is in good hands. Here his subject is the grand statue that greets newcomers to New York's harbor, both on a prosaic level—where the idea came from, how it got here—and a more grand one, looking at the virtue that she embodies. Burns is more successful when he's sticking to the historical record, but this is still a creditable work, and if you need to know this stuff for homework purposes, it goes down a whole lot easier here than it does from a dry textbook.

The first portion of the film profiles Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who was the driving force behind the statue, which was a gift to the American people from the people of France, in commemoration of the American centennial, in 1876. (Construction being what it is, Lady Liberty made it here ten years later.) Obviously hundreds if not thousands contributed to the project, but Bartholdi was the indispensable man; he dealt with minor inconveniences like the inability of the statue actually to stand up, and for this he brought in noted engineer Gustav Eiffel, he of the eponymous tower. Burns tells the story well, and it's especially artful, given the relative paucity of material from the period; sometimes it’s a little much, though, with bits of Renoir paintings standing in for France, or Trumbull's painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence for American values. Appropriate credit and attention is given to Emma Lazarus, as well, for her poem, The New Colossus, inextricably linked with the statue—"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

The balance of the film is a reflection on the immigrant experience in America, for the Statue of Liberty is hard by Ellis Island, the gateway for generations of new Americans. Much of Burns' footage is of anonymous immigrants, so hopeful, seeking a better life; reflecting on this aspect of the American experience are notable recent immigrants (including Milos Forman, Vartan Gregorian, and Andrei Codrescu) and children of immigrants, the most notable of whom here is certainly Mario Cuomo, who was New York's governor when this film was made. James Baldwin provides some sorely needed perspective from the African-American experience, as well: "For a black American, the Statue of Liberty is nothing but a bitter joke."

Many of those interviewed are asked to provide their definition of liberty, and this isn't especially successful or illuminating; Burns leans hard on a clip from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which doesn't quite work in this context. Better are the bits of the statue in popular culture: in ads, political cartoons, Supertramp album covers, and, most notoriously of all, providing the kicker to Planet of the Apes. All in all, it's a tasteful, informative, and of course patriotic look at one of our most enduring national symbols.

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


Image Transfer

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

Image Transfer Review: Pretty solid work here—colors seem a little gray, a function of time, and there are some scratches, but these seem to be issues of the source material.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: David McCullough provides the lulling narration, and Jeremy Irons is especially good providing Bartholdi's voice; the transfer has some dynamics problems—the music can overwhelm—but it's more or less fine.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 22 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 identical to the featurette you'll find on the Brooklyn Bridge DVD and the others included in this set; the same can be said for A Conversation with Ken Burns (10m:22s), an overview of the director's work, with no specific mention of this project.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

An edifying hour on one of the most potent, persuasive, and enduring works of public art and national character in these United States. (Now it's time to open the statue back up, and let us all climb to the top again!)


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