2009, TV

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009, Ken Burns)

This is probably Burns’ most over-mythologized documentary to date, and that alone should make it kind of bad. I mean, it’s practically insufferable how over-the-top some of these interviewees are with The Meaning of the National Parks. All of Burns’ other mini-series that I have seen have done this to an extent, but this one takes the cake.

However, there are a few reasons why I am overcome by the film to stop caring about the bullshit pouring out of these people’s mouths.

  • For one thing, it is gorgeous to look at. Combining both contemporary footage and historical photography and a little painting, this is as good a glimpse of the nature of the United States as you are going to get outside of a BBC-style nature documentary.
  • The history of the parks is extremely fascinating. That alone makes the film worth watching. Whether or not the Americans really were the first people to have ‘national’ parks – and I really doubt that this is true – the history of how the parks came about is intriguing and also illustrative for our generation and future generations.
  • Finally, though I have never myself been to a US national park to my knowledge, I have been to many of Canada’s. And though I recognize much of what the park myth-makers spew out as bullshit, that bullshit has a great appeal to me, because I have had similar experiences in Canada’s parks. The difference is that I am not going to project my personal experience on the entire population of the country and claim that my experiences in these parks is somehow some kind of glue that knits my fellow 35 million Canadians together with me in the social fabric, blah blah blah. I recognize that many people, especially poor, urban populations, haven’t had these experiences.

So even though there are moments during this film that I wanted to puke because of the horseshit about Americanness, this is one of my favourite Burns documentaries. I like the rest of it that much.


  • Written by Dayton Duncan
  • Directed by Ken Burns
  • Starring:
    • Tom Hanks
    • Andy García
    • Josh Lucas
    • Eli Wallach
    • Campbell Scott
    • Sam Waterston
    • John Lithgow
    • George Takei
    • Philip Bosco
    • Carolyn McCormick
    • Adam Arkin
    • Kevin Conway
  • Narrated by Peter Coyote
  • Country of origin: United States
  • Producers: Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan
  • Running time: 12 hours
  • Distributor: Public Broadcasting Service
  • Original release: September 27, 2009

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