All Ken Burns Documentary Films Ranked

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All Ken Burns Documentary Films Ranked

Elaine Chung

Early on during the pandemic, my feel-good shows stopped working. I’d watch The Office with nothing but contempt for Michael, Pam, Jim, and their non-coronavirus-infected lives. It was April, and I would’ve cut out my eyeballs with a dull butter knife if it meant I could travel back in time to live in Scranton, PA, in 2004. In desperation, I searched for a new series. Something that wouldn’t make me miss my non-coronavirus life, but would offer me perspective instead. I needed the TV show version of a curmudgeonly grandpa describing in excruciating detail the many miles he had to walk to get to school each day. That’s when I remembered I have one. We all do. In the blessed form of Ken Burns documentaries.

I am a longtime Ken Burns fan. Before the pandemic set in, I had already seen many of his films. But there were some big ones that I managed to miss. So, to cheer myself up, I committed to watching the rest of them during quarantine, starting with The Vietnam War. As I made my way through the films, my sadness receded. Relaxing into the sweet, predictable pacing of a Ken Burns docuseries eased my mind, and the history presented within the films put the current moment into perspective. Now, I’m now uniquely qualified—in so much as anyone is—to rank the efforts of the legendary documentarian.

Before we dive in, a point of clarification: For the purpose of this consideration, I only included films that Ken Burns directed, meaning the ones he produced didn’t make the cut. That’s why you won’t see The West on the list. That said, ride out the rest of the pandemic with our totally biased and super unscientific ranking of each and every Ken Burns documentary.

29. The Congress

A two-hour-long celebration of America’s least effective governing body? No thank you.

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28. Thomas Hart Benton

Here’s what I gleaned from Thomas Hart Benton: 1) Art critics are judge-y. 2) Thomas Hart Benton is from Missouri.

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27. Mark Twain

Burns is a lot of things, but silly isn’t one of them. And Mark Twain is a funny guy. The clashing of their personalities makes for an uneven film. Twain is too dynamic a figure to be hammered into Ken Burns’ mold. If you’re looking for a great take on Twain, read Roy Morris Jr.’s biography on the writer, American Vandal.

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26. Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but this Ken Burns documentary didn’t have nearly enough photographs. That’s not the filmmakers’ fault. When Lewis and Clark headed out in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, the camera hadn’t been invented yet. In Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, Burns does his best to communicate the trials and tribulations of the duo’s awesome adventure, often relying on stock footage of the places they traveled for visuals. But the lack of photographs and first-person accounts (two major elements of Burns’ trademark style) makes for an uninspiring and incomplete viewing experience.

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25. Huey Long

The only problem with Huey Long is that the dozen or so local folks Burns interviews for the documentary threaten to upstage its central character. In Huey Long, Burns fails to build up Long’s biography before diving into everyday Lousianians’ opinions of him. It creates a documentary that, in the end, reveals more about the characters and politics of Louisiana than it does about America’s most divisive wannabe-dictator.

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24. Frank Lloyd Wright

In the opening moments of this Burns biography, the narrator, Edward Hermann, introduces the mercurial architect at its center with all of the flair and enthusiasm of a hungover, substitute teacher. “Frank Lloyd Wright broke all the rules,” he monotoned. Like Twain, Wright is too dizzying and defiant a character for the Burns treatment. Insane anecdotes from his life—like the time he borrowed money from his neighbor to get out of debt but instead spent all the money on three grand pianos—get lost when described by the films’ tweedy historians. That being said, if you’ve never seen any of Wright’s designs, this documentary is a great place to start. Sprinkled throughout it are beautiful photos and footage of the architect’s most famous creations.

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23. Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War

The Unitarian couple at the center of this story deserve a Marvel movie. They literally rescued people from Nazis. I get why Ken Burns wanted to make a documentary about them, but he should’ve handed the reins over to someone with a bigger budget than PBS.

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22. The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God

Here’s the thing: The shakers are fascinating, but Ken Burns’ documentary about them is a snoozefest. It lacks point of view and presents information about the unique religious movement as if it’s a unit in a 3rd grade history class. Here’s hoping he updates the series before the last few living Shakers pass away.

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21. The Civil War

This mega-popular film aged about as well as a glass of milk. It’s epic, to be sure. And the letters from soldiers punctuate the film with a lovely poignancy. But none of that is enough to override the docu-series central sin: its reliance on Lost Cause history and the expertise of controversial pseudo-historian Shelby Foote. Serious students of history will audibly gasp when they hear Foote claim that the Civil War happened “because we failed to do the thing we have a real genius for, which is compromise.”

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20. The War

In The War, Ken Burns does away with his traditional overview mode of storytelling in exchange for a zoomed-in look at World War II through the lenses of four small towns and the folks who resided in them. Gone are the talking heads and historians who populate Burns’ other films and analyze, often to the benefit of the viewer, the subject matter at hand. Instead, Burns relies on the townspeople to tell the story of the war, and while many of the anecdotes they relay are illuminating, they don’t begin to capture the totality of World War II.

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19. Thomas Jefferson

Here’s what I’ll say about the Thomas Jefferson documentary: It’s better than Ken Burns’ other biographical documentaries. It also, thankfully, includes honest and poignant reflection on Jefferson’s racism.

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18. Jazz

Because I am terrified of incurring the wrath of jazz critics, I’m going to go ahead and agree with them and say that Jazz doesn’t do a great job of capturing jazz. Not all of it at least. The series claims to survey jazz from 1917 up through 2001, but only one of the 10 episodes deals with music made after 1960. It is uneven to a startling degree. The film also fails to include major parts of jazz history, and critics have and will continue to argue over which musicians’ contributions are glossed over and whose are overemphasized. Like all of Burns’ productions, Jazz strives to be comprehensive, and for newbies, it will be. But if you’re a serious consumer of jazz, I recommend skipping this series, both for the sake of yourself and the people who are seated next to you at a future dinner party.

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17. Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio

Is it thrilling to learn about people who were positively bamboozled by the radio? No, it is not. But it’s enjoyable enough. The decision to focus on three primary characters from America’s radio era narrows the documentary to a respectable and digestible 90 minutes. Plus, it is full of fun, fuzzy broadcast sounds from the early days of transmission.

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16. Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip

This is a surprisingly wacky and upbeat documentary about the first cross-country road trip. The protagonist, Dr. Horatio Nelson, is a spirited adventurer. But the real star of this documentary is Bud, the goggle-donning pitbull Nelson adopted somewhere outside Caldwell, Idaho.

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15. The Statue of Liberty

The best part of The Statue of Liberty is when a world-weary James Baldwin reflects on the meaning of liberty. “For a Black American,” Baldwin says, “the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke.”

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14. Not for Ourselves Alone

Not for Ourselves Alone profiles two important figures from the women’s suffrage movement: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And if it weren’t for the cloying, fluttery sounds of the fiddle that serves as the film’s score, it’d be a great documentary. It worked in Civil War. It doesn’t work here. Instead, the music undercuts the importance of the story Burns is attempting to tell. Thankfully, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are remarkable figures and their opposites-attract tale is naturally fascinating, so despite the production at times getting in the way, the documentary is still a worthy and compelling watch. Also, someone should make a bosom-buddy comedy about these two women starring Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig in the titular roles.

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13. The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science

The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science might be Ken Burns’ most personal film. After he was a patient at the famed hospital, Burns began digging into its history and found what he believed to be a quintessentially American story, as inspiring as it is unlikely. The Mayo Clinic was built upon the wreckage of a deadly tornado in Rochester, Minnesota and was willed into existence through a partnership between, of all people, a nun and a physician. Because it’s already a remarkable story, Burns doesn’t have to do much to improve it. The documentary gets the typical Burns treatment but is punched up by narration from Tom Hanks, current photographs and footage of the mighty hospital, and celebrity cameos from Tom Brokaw and the Dalai Lama (both labeled simply as “patients” in the film).

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12. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

“Holy shit, Jack Johnson is a badass!” That was my reaction after watching Unforgivable Blackness earlier this summer. The first Black heavyweight boxing champion, Johnson is given due consideration by Burns and the series’ stable of lively talking heads in this two-part biography. It’s a thoughtful and pensive look at a person who lived out loud despite a racist nation’s desperate attempts to silence him.

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11. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

If Burns had cut this series off after Episode Four, it would have easily cracked the top 10 of this list. But the problem is, once the hard work of setting up the parks is done and John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt fade from the narrative, the series loses its thrust and you still have two more episodes to go. Though there is so much gorgeous, high-definition footage in this film, which is a welcome departure from the typical zoom-in-and-pan treatment that Burns relied on in many of his early films.

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10. Brooklyn Bridge

In this Academy Award-nominated film, Ken Burns, working off of a book written by the historian David McCullough, presents the bridge as a testament of American mightiness. By the end of it, you’ll be hard-pressed to not agree with his argument.

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9. Country Music

Much like Jazz, Country Music attempts to tell a cohesive and comprehensive story about a complicated genre of music. Importantly, Burns succeeds in surfacing some of the many narratives that the genre’s establishment has attempted to squash over the years. The banjo’s roots in West African gourd instruments is one of the series’ most important details, as is the centering of Maybelle Carter’s influential guitar playing. But for all that Burns includes and gets right in Country Music, an equal amount is left out or looked over—especially from country music’s more modern era. The absences here aren’t as egregious as they are in Jazz, and there is lots of music to enjoy along the way. But I’m convinced that Ken Burns shouldn’t make sweeping documentaries about music.

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8. The Address

The Address profiles the students of Greenwood School, a boarding school in Vermont for boys with “language-based learning differences” as they prepare for and participate in an annual, public reciting of the Gettysburg Address. It’s a touching look at the difficulties students with dyslexia and ADHD face. Burns adds to the story by making thoughtful choices, like having the students provide the film’s narration and including several interviews with the schools’ teachers and administrators.

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7. Prohibition

In the third and final episode of Prohibition, writer Jonathan Eig describes the 18th Amendment, AKA Prohibition, as “the law of unintended consequences.” It’s an accurate summary of our government’s disastrous attempt to curb what Burns is careful to paint as a serious issue—a national drinking problem. There’s a surprising amount of analysis in this documentary, which makes it way more interesting than your average history lesson.

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6. Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson is not your typical sports biography. The first episode in this two-part series covers familiar ground but is enriched by Jamie Foxx’s voicing of Jackie Robinson and narration from Robinson’s widow, Rachel. But the series really comes alive in the second episode, which discusses Robinson’s post-retirement contributions to the Civil Rights movement and his controversial political leanings, including his support of Richard Nixon.

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5. Baseball

Seeing as I cannot name a single, living baseball player, I did not expect to enjoy Baseball as much as I did, and perhaps those low expectations are fueling this ranking. But what I appreciate most about Baseball is how many other subjects Burns manages to relate back to the sport. Throughout the nine episodes (or “innings” as they are referred to in the film), Burns shows how the sport was intrinsically linked to other moments in U.S. history including the Civil Rights movement and World War II. At some point though, listening to historians endlessly extoll the virtues of “America’s Pastime” does get tiresome, just like the sport itself.

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4. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

I have long joked that my favorite president is Eleanor Roosevelt, followed closely by Theodore, then Franklin. So I was bound to love this megaseries that profiles the three of them in exacting detail. Whether or not you love it as much as I do will depend entirely on your fondness for the Roosevelts. But it’s hard to imagine a trio more worthy of Burns’ obsessive observations, and the filmmaker deserves credit for thinking to use them as a way to debate the merits and shortcomings of the 20th century’s biggest ideas. Highlights include: Poignant descriptions of Teddy in his post-presidency years, the thinly-veiled political opinions of the series’ historians, and Meryl Streep voicing Eleanor Roosevelt.

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3. The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five isn’t your ordinary Ken Burns flick. There’s no panning and zooming of photographs nor is there any narration or voiceover. The documentary unfolds chronologically, beginning with the violent assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park and ending with the exoneration of the five men who were falsely accused of committing the crime when they were teenagers. The story is primarily told through interviews with four of the five exonerated men. Their accounts make up the documentary’s most powerful moments.

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2. The Dust Bowl

The dark horse of Burns’ oeuvre. Dorothea Lange’s stark and surreal black and white photography of Depression-era life, eyewitness accounts from those who survived the Dust Bowl, and apocalyptic footage of looming dust clouds, black and thick as charcoal, come together in this film. Together, it tells a story about a man-made disaster that has all too many parallels today in our fight against climate change.

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1. The Vietnam War

A heartbreaking and head-spinning series. The archival footage of the war’s major decision makers combined with interviews with the war’s veterans (Americans and Vietnamese) reveal an important truth: the ones who choose to go to war are spared its most violent consequences. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the Vietnam War would respond so well to Burns’ touch. It is a complicated, tragic subject, and Burns is a masterful navigator of that terrain. Still, that he was able to be both broad and microscopic, subtle and overt, in his evaluation of the war and its endless implications on the present day is a unique feat. It’s ultimately why The Vietnam War takes the number one spot.

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Abigail Covington is a journalist and cultural critic based in Brooklyn, New York but originally from North Carolina, whose work has appeared in Slate, The Nation, Oxford American, and Pitchfork

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