Unlike journalists, historians enjoy the advantage of time, which translates into perspective. Which is why New York: A Documentary Film -- Ric Burns's marvelously informed 14-hour PBS miniseries -- is both richly satisfying and inevitably incomplete. Like his elder brother Ken, with whom he collaborated on The Civil War, Burns mixes striking archival footage with carefully chosen talking heads to tell his stories, focusing mainly on individuals whose lives shaped the New York of their times, as well as the seismic shifts -- physical, cultural, and political -- that redefined life in the city. Just as Horton Foote set scenes in The Civil War, much of New York benefits from scholarly observations by historians including Mike Wallace (Gotham) and Robert A. Caro (The Power Broker). David Ogden Stiers narrates, and other familiar voices (Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon) read passages from literature inspired by the city. Cinematographers Buddy Squires and Allen Moore contribute breathtaking, contemporary aerial shots of the city, sometimes using time-lapse photography to beautiful effect.
Released on the heels of the unspeakable September 11, 2001 terrorist attack that toppled the World Trade Center, Burns's wonderful seven-volume mosaic does not cover the most horrifying event in the city's history. But the film's power remains undiminished, if not enhanced, by the tragedy. New York is a moving, fascinating tribute a vibrant, evolving city and all who passed through it.
Episode One: 1609-1825, The Country and the City Episode One considers the city when it covered just the southern tip of Manhattan. Peter Stuyvesant -- the mayor of New York in its earlier, Dutch-controlled years as New Amsterdam -- gets his due here, as do the British takeover and the American Revolution. (The Episode One DVD also includes a 1999 Charlie Rose interview with Ric Burns and several early, archival films of the city.)
Episode Two: 1825-1865, Order and Disorder Burns chronicles New York's rise from a merchant-driven economy to an industrial center, defining the city's sprawling complexities, and its political contrasts from agrarian culture in the rest of America. Immigration from Ireland explodes, and Burns builds up to the outbreak of the Civil War -- culminating in the bloody 1863 Draft Riots. Burns also celebrates visionary works that have their roots in this chaotic period: Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Frederick Law Olmstead's extraordinary Central Park.
Episode Three: 1865-1898, Sunshine and Shadow Dubbed the Gilded Age by Mark Twain, this century-closing stretch sees New York assert its position as the center of America's increasingly corporate economy. The Industrial Revolution redefines the city, where an unrivaled concentration of wealth coexists beside unparalleled poverty. The Brooklyn Bridge rises, and the city assumes its final geographic boundaries, incorporating Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx.
Episode Four: 1898-1918, The Power and the People New York's population triples, as people flood in to chase the American Dream, and Burns explores the physical and cultural impact of this unprecedented migration. The uniquely New York sense of scale develops, as Pennsylvania and Grand Central Stations take shape, along with the subway system and the first skyscrapers.
Episode Five: 1919-1931 Cosmopolis The Roaring '20s see the ballooning metropolis come to an explosive head, as New York becomes the cultural capital of the world as well as ground zero for the stock market crash. Rather than closing with the crash, though, Burns pushes past it, depicting the race between the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings for skyline supremacy -- reminders of the city's virulent optimism in the face of devastation.
Episode Six: 1929-1941, City of Tomorrow Depression-era New York is depicted as the story of two powerful men with contrasting hopes for the city: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the passionate "Little Flower" who fought to improve living standards through liberal legislation; and Robert Moses, the city planner whose vision transformed the city through monumental public works.
Episode Seven: 1945 to the Present, The City and the World The final episode, depicting the city's post-World War II rise, fall, and rebirth, picks up with Moses' efforts to restructure New York with freeways -- a project that often obliterates thriving neighborhoods and paves the way for middle-class flight to the suburbs. Concerned citizens rise up against Moses in the 1960s, and after defaulting fiscally in the mid-'70s ("Ford to City: Drop Dead"), the city goes on an austerity program and pulls out of the tailspin. While this latter, significant aspect of the city's recent history isn't explained in great detail, the bigger picture is still quite clear. New York remains the capital of the new world, a metaphor for humanity, a resilient metropolis more than equal to any challenge. And Ric Burns's New York makes a most satisfying case for that passionate vision. (The Episode Seven DVD also includes several deleted scenes and outtakes from interviews with Martin Scorsese, Fran Lebowitz, Donald Trump, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert A. Caro.)
Episode Eight: New York: The Center of the World The eighth -- and, one presumes, final -- chapter in Ric Burns’s epic documentary New York --
turns the story of the World Trade Center into a three-hour examination of 20th-century globalization, employing the Twin Towers’ tragic fall as a metaphor for globalization’s apparent evils. Even more so than in the previous episodes, Burns makes his point with relentless power and confidence, employing a series of historians and experts; images both fascinating and distressing (including those of people jumping from the burning towers); and a narration track from David Ogden Stiers that is grave in the extreme. However one feels about Burns’s spin, the story of the WTC remains a fascinating one, and it has never been more passionately or completely told than in this extraordinary film, which is also available separately.