Even more than most of Ken Burns’ historical epics, “The Dust Bowl” feels especially relevant, tackling a period of grave economic hardship and man-made ecological disaster. Proceeding, as most of the filmmaker’s work does, at an unhurried pace, the four-hour project is stately, poetic and sobering, augmented by first-person testimonials — delivered with jarring clarity and occasional tears — from octogenarians and nonagenarians who survived staggering hardships. Burns has been an outspoken advocate on PBS’ behalf, and given the platform the service affords him, no wonder; still, he’s repaid that artistic license with unparalleled portraits of America’s past.
Narrated with gravel and gravity by Peter Coyote, the opening half of “Dust Bowl” speaks of “a decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions, when the skies refused their rains.” The plague-like elements included swarms of grasshoppers and rabbits, brutal winds, “dust pneumonia,” and pillars of dust that “choked out the midday sun.”
Unlike a lot of TV documentarians, Burns steadfastly refuses to include dramatic re-creations, relying (as he did in “Prohibition,” an early-20th-century companion to this) on photographs, grainy video, actors’ readings of diaries or news articles, and of course those aforementioned interviews. The last might be the most compelling, providing a bridge from the macro to the micro, made all the more poignant — as in Burns’ World War II documentary “The War” — by the fact those participating are being lost to history almost daily. (The film features a fairly lengthy “In memoriam” list at the end.)
Several moments linger, such as footage of the rabbit hordes descending on the land — prompting what one witness refers to as a “riot,” as locals clubbed and killed them — to the various suicides amid the oppressive conditions and relentless dust, which “penetrates wherever air can go.”
One needn’t reach too far to find modern-day parallels to government-assistance programs, or concerns about climate change, in this dire imagery; nevertheless, “Dust Bowl” stands on its own in capturing this aspect of the Depression — from those who endured and chose to stay, to others who pulled up stakes and fled for states like California.
Many of the individual stories are heartbreaking, and the fact there was serious discussion of depopulating the region (which Franklin Roosevelt, considered a savior by many, ultimately rejected) illustrates just how dire the situation was.
The Burns relationship with PBS is certainly reciprocal. The channel gives him considerable time to tell his tales, and he delivers promotable fare, the kind found virtually nowhere else in its scope and tone. The result adds up to a legacy of material that makes the case for public TV about as well as anything could.
Those conservatives who need little incentive to bash PBS will flinch at the underlying message of big government making a positive difference, just as “Prohibition” contained a not-so-subtle indictment of the drug war. Still, even if Burns’ projects trigger some blowback, “The Dust Bowl” is more than worth the dust-up.