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`The Civil War' Teaches TV a Lesson

I LOOKED up from the TV screen one night last month to check the time and realized something surprising: I'd been staring steadily at a sequence of old photos for a solid hour and a half. Not at fancy camera work, just historical images accompanied by factual narration. The program, of course, was ``The Civil War,'' part of the PBS documentary series that aired last month. Its deeply satisfying effect had crept up on me bit by convincing bit. Viewers still haven't stopped talking about the show, and probably won't in the years to come as it's shown again in schools and other venues. Images from more than 125 years ago - of generals and privates, of parades and fallen soldiers - meant more to them than many events in their day-to-day lives. People spoke not as if they'd seen a show but as if they'd lived it, because that's how the story unfolds, not in sweeping concepts but the way lives are lived - in a progression of telltale moments.

Producers should look hard at what emerged during those 11 hours: a message about their medium wrapped in a history lesson. The series made the war so real that we could understand why it has shaped politics and national identity ever since.

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It also taught TV itself a lesson: how to defer. Before watching the series, the question in my mind was whether TV would allow intrusive production devices to trivialize that subject the way it does so many others it deals with. But the series' creator, Ken Burns, knew what the priorities were - that the Civil War is too large a concept to be merely a vehicle for TV virtuosity. For once, the important thing was the substance of the epic events and not its potential for TV production effects. TV may not be the same after this documentary, having been put in its rightful place as a servant of ideas and not the dominant factor.

``The Civil War'' also brilliantly establishes that TV can work from the inside out, exploring the exact nature of a subject and letting the overall results follow.

The show's creator, Ken Burns, says he was seeking ``not causes or effects but what actually happened.'' In ``The Civil War,'' you see an entire canvas by considering each stroke. Thousands of sights and sounds are integrated without any of them being slighted. The individual pictures are all but palpable and movingly true to their subject. They gave me the same feeling I have when I read my old family letters from Civil War battlefronts or handle the heavy Civil War sword by my fireplace. Such items make you wonder what it was like back then. The little things in this documentary make you want to understand the big things.

And eventually you do, but it takes a master filmmaker like Mr. Burns to manage this. You don't have the world thrown at you in grandiose strokes, as in so many other programs.

What Mr. Burns offers instead - subtly, matter-of-factly, cumulatively - is a whole that exceeds the sum of its fascinating parts. Sometimes that's what true artists do - put together familiar elements to come up with something wonderfully revealing. His brilliantly inductive approach gives the screen the flat, fatalistic feel of a long war. The tone is reflective but not remote, matter-of-fact but not uncaring, at some points recording the horrible carnage with the tone of a routine army casualty report and at others through a heart-breaking letter. In the past, the closest I've seen TV come to this atmosphere was a 1970s documentary that actually followed an Army unit into the Vietnamese jungle and, in effect, lived with the men.

``The Civil War'' has to seek these same truths largely with still photographs. It helps that most of the stills, despite their age, are of such high quality that TV cameras can afford to move across their surfaces, letting viewers dwell on tiny points or even make a movie in their mind's eye.

Burns does dress up these pictures a little with a soundtrack. But what a soundtrack! Echoing drums, ghostly and inexorable, beat a doomsday obbligato to the looming battles described in the narration. You hear the yells, military commands, hauntingly authentic music.

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Granted, these are re-creations. But they spring so naturally from the material you sometimes mistake them for your own thoughts. Even the series' well-known narrators shun standard announcer bombast, as if they had lived through the war themselves and it had sobered them.

The series has already spoiled many viewers for more typical documentaries. Burns says his next big project is about baseball. I can't wait.

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