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PBS’s Comprehensive and Illuminating Examination of THE BOMB

THE BOMB

on PBS


(5/5)

Pros: Detailed and immensely provocative, with plenty of moments both comical and sobering


Cons: This documentary asks the hard questions and is quite provocative: itt’s not the flag-waving piece some viewers might desire

Timed for broadcast to roughly coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the concluding events of World War II, the two-hour PBS documentary titled simply The Bomb tells the chronological history of nuclear weapons and their effects on world history. Beginning with the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission in pre-WWII Germany, the film’s first half goes on to chronicle the whole of the Manhattan Project that saw the United States develop the first true weapons of mass destruction. During this segment, The Bomb covers nearly identical territory as Discovery Channel’s How We Built the Bomb, yet the PBS show is a tidier production, presenting a more wide-reaching examination of the topic in a fraction of the time. I’d almost say that PBS’s straight-forward documentary is the ideal companion piece to Discovery’s more movie-like program, sinceThe Bomb attaches actual faces to its explanation of the story.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 65th Anniversary


From here, The Bomb continues to discuss what happened after this initial display of power, tackling the subjects of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction that, while absolutely preposterous and more than a bit maniacal, probably kept the human race from destroying itself.   The main body of the program more or less ends with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the cessation of US nuclear testing in 1992, but features an epilogue of sorts that cautions about how these weapons will forever remain a threat – particularly as more and more foreign nations develop their own nuclear programs.

Consistent with typically outstanding PBS shows like Nova and American Experience, The Bomb is a straight-forward production consisting of interviews with former military personnel, scientists, and political figures as well as historians and researchers well-versed in the subjects being discussed. The program makes use of an extensive collection of archival footage, a surprising amount of which is in striking color and much of which was restored specifically for inclusion here. A sort of teaser which pops up before the film begins shows a before and after comparison revealing how effective this restoration was, and the story is held together by a well-written narration.


While there are some carefree moments scattered about – such as a sequence when public fascination with all things atomic during the late ‘40s, including the development of the bikini swimsuit, is investigated – the overall tone of the documentary is more frequently serious if not ominous and menacing. It seems like the producers went out of their way to find the most awe-inspiring and inevitably unsettling images of atomic explosions. There is a frankly unbelievable amount of actual film footage of these events (some from tests that I’d never even heard of), and the program starts to border on being downright scary when covering the era of McCarthyism or showing efforts during the ‘50s on the part of America and the Soviets to construct almost inconceivably powerful thermonuclear devices. Also frightening (though darkly humorous in a way) are segments which focus on the ideas of being prepared for potential nuclear strikes – including the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon.


Considering the controversial subject at the heart of the documentary, it might not be surprising that The Bomb could be declared “thought-provoking” for making a viewer really examine and question the situations being discussed, but I think the program’s strongest aspect is its challenging nature. The Bomb purposely avoids notions of patriotism often attached to discussions about atomic weapons, and instead actually forces the viewer to confront cold hard about the actualities of nuclear war. Footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows unfortunate victims of those blasts and their horrific wounds, and while the historians interviewed during the production acknowledge the scientific accomplishment that the development of the bomb was, they are equally as likely to point out the “most extraordinary insanity” on the part of humanity that the nuclear arms race represented. In hindsight, it becomes very difficult to view the arms race as anything but a pissing contest: after all, what “piece of mind” did having some 31,000 nuclear weapons (as the US did at its peak in 1967) really provide – especially when, as they were attempting to convince the public that a nuclear attack was somehow survivable, the government was also striving to create ever-more powerful weapons?

Ultimately, a viewer is left with a deep understanding of how many if not all world events in the latter half of the twentieth century played out under the shadow of the atomic bomb. While many documentaries have covered topics related to nuclear weapons with varying degrees of success (among the better ones are this year’s aforementioned How We Built the Bomb and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which compiles educational and government-produced short programs into an alternately amusing and deadly serious collage), I’m not sure that any provide a better, more altogether comprehensive examination of the subject than this program does. As such, The Bomb is almost essential viewing that would be perfect for usage in an educational setting. This is the sort of program that makes PBS stand out among the so-called educational channels, and I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.


 

The documentary at the PBS website.

An Epic Portrait of American Royalty: THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY

THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY on PBS

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(4/5)

Pros: Well-researched; strong presentation; very educational

Cons: Undeniably “dry” when compared to most modern documentaries

The latest in a string of epic documentaries produced for public television (i.e. PBS) by filmmaker Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a seven-part, roughly fourteen-hour series premiering in September 2014 that chronicles the history of one of America’s most important political dynasties from a period in the mid-1800s until Eleanor Roosevelt’s death in 1962. Starting off by examining the roots of the family in New York State, The Roosevelts’ premiere episode, entitled “Get Action,”goes on to detail how Theodore Roosevelt rose to power in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. A viewer starts to realize through the program that Theodore’s rise to political prominence was rather unlikely: after suffering from physical limitations early on in life, Theodore eventually had to work through several tragedies that occurred early on in his political career. All the while the documentary tells the story of how Theodore began a life of adventure in the American west to get his wits back about him after the deaths of his first wife and mother on the same day in 1884, Burns also devotes time to explaining the early life of Theodore’s cousin Franklin Delano, who was born into a different branch of the family. “Get Action” finishes with Theodore taking over the presidency of the United States after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, a situation that would not only have a profound effect on the country but also on Theodore’s younger cousin who now saw proof that perseverance and hard work could pay off…

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Teddy (left) and FDR (right) in 1914.

Much like earlier Ken Burns documentaries, The Roosevelts relies on various sources and archival materials to tell its story. While the series does feature omniscient narration (provided by the always reliable Peter Coyote) and has the expected group of “talking head” historians who offer their two cents in analyzing the events taking place in the ongoing narrative, Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward often rely on actual first-hand accounts written by the subjects of the documentary themselves which are recited by a group of actors (including Paul Giamatti who portrays Theodore, Edward Herrmann who voices Franklin, and Meryl Streep as Eleanor). This technique goes a long way in making the production seem like it is, as advertised, an “intimate history:” the viewer often is told the story right from the horse’s mouth as it were, and the insight into various well-known and not-so well-known historical events is undeniably fascinating. This series certainly seems like a “peek behind the curtain” of a much-revered and admired family.

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In its explanation of Teddy’s action during the Spanish-American War, the series includes several detailed battle descriptions – fascinating stuff.

Along with these anecdotes, Burns also provides a wealth of archival images that speak to the amount of research and work that went into this production. Including both iconic, instantly recognizable images and ones taken from more private collections, these photographs are perhaps best in their ability to help establish the setting that this documentary is attempting to chronicle. This seems an important aspect of the production to me, since the period discussed in this series is one that few (if any) people would have first-hand knowledge about. Obviously, technology changed immensely from the time that Theodore Roosevelt was leading the so-called “Rough Riders” in Cuba to the period in which Pearl Harbor was bombed thus entering the United States into the Second World War, and I would anticipate that the format of the series may change slightly as it progresses to include more vintage film elements over static images. Either way, Burns does include contemporary scenes from time to time to make this production a bit more digestible to modern audiences used to a more flashy production.

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FDR – a voice of reason during a period of national crisis

That last statement is indicative of one criticism I might have about this documentary. By 2014, after having worked on numerous productions of this nature, Burns’ documentary formula is pretty well-established and seems bland compared to the more vibrant, modern documentary style. In many ways, The Roosevelts could be seen as a rather “dry,” old-fashioned documentary: it’s precisely the type of no-nonsense production that I recall having to watch in school on many occasions (this same basic format was used for Burns’ Civil War for instance). Additionally, even if Burns’ selection of music is perfectly acceptable given the subject matter he’s covering, the format of having an actor reading journal entries over distant, dramatic music almost becomes cheesy in context of modern film making and/or documentary technique. To put it simply, this type of thing would be likely to put some younger viewers and maybe even older audiences to sleep: the production as a whole seems almost lackadaisical in terms of its mood and forward momentum.

Eleanor
Eleanor, who redefined the role of the “First Lady.”

It’s a good thing then that the amount and quality of information presented in this film is truly outstanding. While I’m no presidential scholar, I certainly have at least a passing familiarity with various aspects of American history, and I found that this documentary provided a ton of information that I hadn’t been aware of or had forgotten over time. There’s also some interesting food-for-thought provided in the form of inevitable comparisons that could be made between the times when Theodore and FDR were president (and the era between their two presidencies) and the modern age. I found several quotes and analysis by the historians to be especially fascinating in a modern context: Theodore’s declaration to “never let party zeal obscure [his] sense of right and decency” is a statement that I would scoff at coming from the mouths of one of today’s politicians. In an era where congressional approval ratings are in the single digits and politicians (at best) seem too caught up in personal gain and cronyism, it seems outrageous that genuine altruists of the Roosevelt variety would be elected to office – or not be corrupted beyond recognition if they did.

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Teddy Roosevelt: Big game hunter, warmonger, and Imperialist?

As much as the historians interviewed in the program to an extent do seem to be offering up near-endless praise to the subjects of the documentary, they aren’t afraid to point out flaws in the Roosevelts either. A significant amount of time is paid in the first episode to the notion that Theodore may not only have been somewhat mentally unstable, but also a bit of a warmonger who “reveled in gore.” Additionally, the observation that Teddy was an outright Imperialist isn’t necessarily a flattering one, yet may explain a few things about American foreign policy that are still relevant today. The film also doesn’t ignore the fact that Eleanor and Franklin were (gulp!) related – or shy away from discussing FDR’s extramarital activities. In the end, though the series sometimes seems pretty warm and fuzzy, it appears to present an accurate and fairly objective portrait.

three subjects

Even if it’s not the most flashy thing I’ve ever seen, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is quite riveting and compelling for what it is, and would be about a must for those seriously interested in the American presidency or the country’s history in general. The series as a whole is exceedingly well put-together – the editing of Paul Barnes is extraordinary in its ability to juggle the stories of three different family members (Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor) at any given time, and the program presents a veritable smorgasbord of facts and archival material. As good as the early episodes have been, I can only imagine the series would get better as it goes along and covers seemingly more significant (and more well-known) segments in the lives of its subjects. One of Ken Burns’ most admirable talents as a documentarian is that he makes comprehensive and indeed almost exhaustive analyses of historical subjects tolerable for mainstream audiences, and I’d have to say that he’s come up with another winner here. It might not impress younger viewers, but this sober and all-encompassing series is undoubtedly excellent.

PBS Beats Shark Week At Its Own Game: OPERATION MANEATER

OPERATION MANEATER on PBS

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(4/5)

Pros: very compelling information; more hard-hitting than anything on Shark Week…

Cons: but humans still don’t seem to get it that going into the ocean puts them at risk of a shark attack

Sheesh! Just when I thought it was safe to watch educational TV again, a little over a week removed from the 2014 edition of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, what does PBS do but air a program that not only was as or more interesting than most of the shows seen on Discovery Channel, but one that addresses issues that in my opinion, should have been the focus of Shark Week in the first place.

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Host Mark Evans testing new technology for spotting sharks from the air.

Following in the footsteps of the Sex in the Wild documentary series that aired earlier this summer, Operation Maneater which premiered on August 27th seems to again indicate that PBS is striving to find a new audience with more hard-hitting nature-related programming. Hosted by veterinarian Mark Evans (who also featured on Sex in the Wild), this three-part series details the efforts of scientists to keep various endangered animal species from posing a threat to humans, which as might be expected, isn’t an easy task. The first episode dealt with none other than the great white shark. As shark attacks surrounding the city of Perth in Western Australia continue to increase (seven fatal attacks since 2010), the Australian government has enacted a policy of running drumlines in the surrounding waters. These lines are designed to catch sharks of the great white, tiger, and bull varieties greater than three meters in length, which upon being snagged on the line are killed via a gunshot to the head and dumped back in the drink. Needless to say, hasn’t been very popular with Australian citizens and seems downright barbaric and (to say the least) misguided in my estimation. Evans’ goal throughout this first episode is to examine possible alternatives to the ecologically damaging, wanton extermination of random sharks.

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A sensible manner of dealing with the shark problem

First off, let me say that shows like this which focus explicitly on issues relating to shark conservation are what Discovery’s Shark Week should have been presenting all along. I realize that the dozens and dozens of programs which feature shark attack victims recounting their “terrifying ordeals” get viewers to tune in, but these shows seem to have precisely the opposite effect on viewers of what I would hope Shark Week would provide. Certainly, the block of shark-related programming shows the majesty of these ultimate underwater predators and reaffirms to the reality-show devouring public that yes, sharks still exist and they’re still scary. Undoubtedly though, the constant presentation of “worst case scenario” shark stories and images of gnashing teeth only confirms many viewers’ prejudices about these animals.

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Don’t understand it?  IT MUST BE KILLED!

Let’s not forget that in that same period where seven Australians lost their lives by entering an ocean that is very much the domain of the shark that human beings killed millions upon millions of sharks– often in about as horrific a manner as possible by de-finning the creatures and dumping them – still alive – back into the ocean. Terrible as any loss of human life is, at some level, the human race is experiencing what I would be inclined to call some payback.

WARNING! THIS VIDEO IS EXTREMELY GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!

Allow me at this point to quote Evans himself when examining a device which emits an electric “pulse” underwater around a person wearing the unit: “…rather than rely on such a deterrent, it would be better to avoid such encounters in the first place.” The only way to completely avoid shark attacks is to stay the hell out of the water in the first place. The sooner humans come to terms with the implications of that statement, the better for everyone and everything concerned.

stay out

Let me get down off my soap box and back to the matter at hand: Operation Maneater examines the process by which Australia is fairly effective in warning the ocean-going public that large sharks may be patrolling their beaches by using helicopter surveillance in conjunction with a tagging program and social media updating. Literally, within a few minutes of getting either a visual confirmation of a shark or a sonic tag pingback, Australian beaches can be cleared. Still, as the program reveals, helicopter observation has been proven only to spot twenty percent of sharks that may be in the area, and one of Evans’ main goals in this episode is to investigate ways in which those numbers can be improved.

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Shark spotting from the air can be a sketchy proposition.

Though various, sometimes outlandish methods of deterring sharks are discussed in the program (including use of sound waves, electronic field generators, and even a dive suit designed to resemble the deadly sea snake), a large amount of time is spent examining the possibility of utilizing multi-spectral imaging to identify sharks as they cruise underwater. This military-grade technology, consisting of a multiple-camera rig that filters out various colors and uses computer software to point out targets (i.e. sharks), is practically evaluated during the program through a series of tests and does seem to show some promise. Clearly, more research into its effectiveness is needed, and the cost of the equipment would probably be prohibitive at this point, so at best it’s an option that may be practical down the line.

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Rigs such as these could be the next step in early shark detection.

Typical with PBS programming, Operation Maneater features a well-rounded discussion of its topics and a ton of straight-forward, factual information. As expected, there’s a sort of crash course in shark behavior and physiology, the most interesting part of which deals with research into shark brain functionality. The program also includes some wonderful underwater images of sharks in action during an operation to tag large great whites, and the use of slow motion footage and visual effects ensure the episode is visually stimulating. Future episodes in the series (which air over the next two weeks) deal with the polar bear and crocodile, so I would expect nothing less than for the overall quality of the program to remain at this very high level.

No sir
This doesn’t look like a good situation…

The most surprising thing to me about this opening episode of Operation Maneater was how fired up it made me. Frankly, it’s sickening to see sharks being killed for no other reason than existing in 2014 – even more so when you consider that many shark species are in real danger of extinction largely because of the creatures having been demonized in the years since Jaws hit movie theaters. The bigger picture question in my mind is why Discovery Channel in their week-long block of shark-related programming barely touched on the issue of the Western Australian Shark Cull – one would think that if the motivations for Shark Week were related to issues about shark conservation that this very real, obviously prescient issue would be discussed rather extensively. Instead, Shark Week offers up fake documentaries and sensationalism to put most reality shows to shame while avoiding any sort of real world, real life issues. It’s a good thing then that public television exists to tackle the difficult subjects that aren’t convenient in the context of publicity-oriented television. Anyway one looks at it, Operation Maneater is top-notch and those who think PBS nature programming is boring should probably check this show out.

Series Preview:

Your Tax Dollars at Work Making Animal Porn on PBS! SEX IN THE WILD

SEX IN THE WILD on PBS

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(4.5/5)

Pros: Undeniably fascinating; doesn’t “dumb down” its subject matter

Cons: I’m sure some people would find this show “distasteful”

Though the channel has long been associated with straight-forward documentaries, chipper childrens programming, and stuffy British dramas, PBS’s newest show suggests that the venerable public television channel might be making an attempt to gain more viewership through including more “salacious” programming. Wednesday night’s Sex in the Wild follows comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg and veterinarian Mark Evans (fresh from National Geographic’s Bigfoot: The New Evidence documentary) as they uncover the rarely-discussed reproductive habits of various animals in rather explicit detail. Obviously, studies of animal mating behavior have figured into many nature documentaries over the years, but this show focuses all of its attention on the subject to the point where the program includes a warning to viewers that it contains “detailed scenes of animal mating and reproductive studies.” In the end, though it’s possible that Sex in the Wild would elicit snickers from the more immature viewers out there (but, they don’t watch PBS in the first place, do they?), I’d have to call this program an outstanding, eye-opening, and refreshingly frank examination of a subject that (let’s face it) is rather fascinating.

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“Hurry along kids…nothing to see here…”

Episode one of the series premiered on July 16, 2014 and dealt with a study of African elephants. Alternately filmed in the nations of South Africa and Botswana, this episode saw Reidenberg explain the mating and birthing process of the large mammals while Evans chronicled the efforts of a South African team to chemically sterilize bull elephants in order to control populations (contrary to popular belief, in some nature reserves, elephant populations have grown to the point of being unsustainable). Throughout the course of the episode, a viewer not only learns about the unique challenges involved when large creatures weighing several tons a piece attempt to mate, but also find out why the elephant has the longest gestation period of any mammal on earth at around 22 months(!).

This premiere episode includes some rather compelling scenes and a plethora of compelling and intriguing information. Shocking though it is to see the “rodeo ride” that’s in store for Evans as he prepares to extract a semen sample from “one of the most impressive reproductive organs on the planet,” it’s revealed that the elephant’s massive penis has the ability to move completely independently of the pelvis due to the female elephant’s rather odd but absolutely practical anatomical structure. A 200 pound elephant calf would be injured if it had to drop from tail-level to the ground as it was born, thus the male penis more or less has to “feel” its way around the lengthy, curved birth canal during mating. Perhaps more conventionally remarkable is a scene showing the birth of a elephant calf which gives the viewer a sense of why elephants have a nearly two year gestation period. Within ten minutes of being born, newborn elephants have gained a startling level of control over their nervous system, and are able to stand up and even run. This is a necessity considering how utterly helpless newborn elephants are – they’re extremely vulnerable to predation in the wilds of the African savanna and desert. I also found the depiction of elephant social behavior to be heart-warming: turns out that Dumbo wasn’t far off-base in detailing a mother elephant’s love for her newborn.

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Hosts of the show Reidenberg and Evans; while Reidenberg gets to play with cute newborn animals, Evans has to manually extract elephant sperm…

Remember those trips to the zoo as a kid when the chaperones would try and brush children past animals that were getting a little too “frisky?”  The best thing about Sex in the Wild in my opinion is that it doesn’t try and brush past or “dumb down” its subject in an effort to make the program more digestible for potentially sensitive viewers: sex is, after all, a natural process and one that is absolutely vital to any living species. As might be expected from a PBS program, Sex in the Wild is generally pretty sober and is put together extremely well – even if it does (perhaps inevitably) have a few “look and point” or “EWW!” moments. This initial episode made nice use of footage recorded under controlled situations (i.e. with elephants that were held in semi-captivity) as well as scenes showing elephants roaming freely in the wild, and a variety of camera techniques (including aerial shots and infrared cameras) were used to record the action. Editing during the documentary was slickly executed with the narration provided by Reidenberg and Evans explaining what we’re seeing onscreen quite well. I also thought the ponderous music score fit the mood of the program perfectly.

kangaroos
Coming soon to a PBS station near you: ROMEO and JULIET as played by kangaroos…

I suppose it goes without say that this program would not be appropriate for or to the taste of some viewers; it may be the most obviously potentially objectionable program on PBS – but is it really that awful in the bigger scheme of things? Sex in the Wild (which will have a four-episode run this summer – orangutans, kangaroos, and dolphins being the other topics – with future episodes to be decided upon later) certainly has a few moments that might make some people uncomfortable, but I think the educational value of the program makes it more than just a show to gawk at. Ending on a bit of a bittersweet note, this first episode definitely held my interest throughout its hour-long run time and presented a wealth of information that I would not otherwise have known. If nothing else, this program proves that even as most “educational” channels continue to cop out with lowbrow reality television, PBS’s lineup of new programs and established staples (Nova, History Detectives, and Frontline are outstanding) remains as strong as ever.

FULL EPISODES CAN BE VIEWED .