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🎵On the Fourth Day of Docu-cember, my true love gave to me🎵

4. Classic Flicks

3. Nature Docs

2. Biopics

And a Genre New for Me.

This December, I thought it apt to make up my own mini-Advent calendar for every movie lover out there, this time built around something I love: The documentary. To make it interesting for you, I’ll set this filmographic list to a tune, and not just any tune, but perhaps the most famous holiday melody of them all. I have prepared 12 documentaries, all of which are more than worthy of watching. Starting today, a new part of this set will be released every other day, culminating with the final part releasing on Christmas Eve.

Day Four: Classic Flicks

Sometimes instead of crazy cameras and weird story structures, you need a regular ol’ documentary with a bunch of guys in chairs telling a good story and some cool graphics up on the screen. Maybe that guy is Orson Welles recounting the history of lying in art in “F is for Fake” (1974). Maybe it’s (primarily) Shoshanna Zuboff covering the all-consuming nature of social media in “The Social Dilemma” (2020). Maybe it’s Ava DuVernay’s “13th” (2016), a heartbreaking documentary on the U.S. prison system’s abuse of Black America. But the most classic of all documentarians is the indomitable Ken Burns. And there’s no Ken Burns flick as classic as 1990’s “The Civil War.”

What is there to say about “The Civil War” that hasn’t been said already? This 12-hour monster of a documentary captures every moment of the American Civil War, from sudden start to bloody end, and it somehow maintains the audience’s undivided (ha) attention nearly the entire time (Listen, it’s hard to focus in for nine straight hours of unadulterated war history). Burns corners all sides of this vast conflict in expert interviews with southern historians, Yankee professors, Black History authors, active generals and descendants of veterans, which leaves no stone, no aspect of the war unturned.

Burns does not neglect military history; he uses battle maps, analyzes day-of letters and resurfaces skeletal remains to pin down the moments of battle in the exact order they took place. If you are like me and have no knowledge of military tactics or history, you’ll still be able to watch this doc and come out of it feeling able to wipe out Robert E. Lee on the battlefield. The doc is also awash with the political history of the time. 

The documentary covers everything, from the tumultuous election of 1860 to the blood-red fields of Gettysburg and Antietam to the Garrett Tobacco Farm, where the half-paralyzed and wholly-dying John Wilkes Booth proclaimed with his final breath, “Useless, Useless.” Burns stops, step by step, month by month, to remind us what Lincoln and Davis, Union and Confederates were doing to both escalate and end the conflict.

That’s not to say that humanity is lost in the presentation. Burns constantly finds ways to root the whole bloody affair in emotion. Burns uses personal anecdotes of soldiers on the battlefield as a framing device. Most notably, Sullivan Ballou’s heart-wrenching letter to his wife, proclaiming his undying love for her, only to, in some cruel act of dramatic irony, die two days later in the Battle of Bull Run. To Ken Burns, this is not just a war, but a seminal tragedy. A four-year bloody affair in which the world ceases to turn, and the heart ends its beat. It refuses to yield to the whims of man nor the wails of widows. It is an all-consuming ball of destruction devouring everything in its path — unrelenting, unflinching and, most of all, unforgiving. It is a cataclysm that, before this, remained relatively unknown to the United States.

This was the first documentary I ever saw, sitting with my mom to watch it on weekday nights. As a kid, it was impressed upon me that this was what a documentary was. This detail, this intensity, this thoroughness. Sure, sometimes it was a bit much and got a little boring, but hey, at least David McCollough’s voice was soothing enough to fall asleep to. I don’t think I’m alone in that distinction. This docuseries has progressed to the point where it has culturally become the docuseries to rule all docuseries. From South Park parodies to becoming a mainstay in history classes all over the U.S., “The Civil War” is everywhere. Sure, my shaky classification of what makes a documentary classic might be vague and imprecise, but whatever a classic doc is, Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” certainly fits the bill.

Daily Arts Writer Rami Mahdi can be reached at rhmahdi@umich.edu.