Ken Burns Documentaries

Ken Burns: The Congress – Showing the Government Of and By The Common Man

This documentary, which was originally a part of a series about America produced by noted documentarian Ken Burns, is a portrait of both the building Congress inhabits as well as the Congress itself. Through an extremely creative editing process, Burns manages to weave together the history of the building with the history of this branch of our government.

When Burns focuses on the building, it’s an altogether affectionate portrait. Even as I watched Congressmen who talked of the endless maze of corridors and rooms from the top of the dome to well below the ground, it’s said in an amusing way. When one muses over finding bathtubs in the basement – which former Congressmen use to use for bathing when they didn’t leave for long periods of time – it brought out a sense of mirth as well as the image of the building housing a bunch of packrats.

The footage Burns has shot of the Capitol Building is seemingly from all angles and in many different lights. The beauty of the building during sunset is stunning. Not only did he shoot outside the building, but inside as well. Many places are sections that are likely not open to public viewing and I had the feeling of looking at a museum. The interior of the building makes a great accompaniment to times when Burns is content to let the viewer imagine how it must have been, for no footage of that time exists. It’s more dramatic to imagine the historical figures such as Calhoun and Webster there making their arguments that way. Burns also has filmed the paintings in the halls as well, bringing the audience as close as they can get to what these important figures in history looked like.

When he talks more about the actual inhabitants of the building, it is harder. Burns must cram over 200 years of history into a 90-minute segment, originally aired without commercial interruption on public television. He makes the point that Congress is the We The People part of our government. It is the part of the government that answers to the people it governs more than any else.

As he goes through history, Burns turns his focus to some of the more memorable members of Congress, such as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Thomas Brackett Reed, Sam Rayburn, and others. Henry Clay was the first man to lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol upon his death, a great tribute to a man who spent over forty years serving his country in the Senate.

As Burns moves into more modern times, there is modern footage of the business and events in Congress. It seems as if Burns focuses on the more modern era simply because he has more footage to demonstrate his points. He has footage of the debates over civil rights, Viet Nam, and much more to work with. He uses audio archives as well as commentary and interviews by various people to augment the footage he has edited together. There are interviews with David McCullough, known for his historical writing, newspaperman Charles McDowell, historian Barbara Fields, former Senator John Stennis, journalists Alastair Cooke and Cokie Roberts, and more. It’s a very diverse view of the history of this branch of our government.

This was a great documentary if a bit on the short side. Burns devoted over 18 hours to Baseball, which encompassed just over a hundred years of history. Shouldn’t The Congress have gotten at least half that? Burns does make the point during the documentary that our history books tend to focus on Presidencies and not what’s going on in the rest of government unless it’s a particularly hot debate such as the previously mentioned Henry Clay’s famous compromises.

While by no means a comprehensive documentary of the inner workings, successes, and failures of this branch of our government, it is a nice overview and portrait. I guess now with all the cable channels out there, we can find biographies and documentaries more frequently about various members of Congress as well as pivotal points in history. However, I love the job Burns does with his documentary and wish he had been given as much breadth with this as he was with Baseball or The Civil War.


• Ken Burns: Making History
• A Conversation with Ken Burns

Both of these have been available on other Ken Burns documentaries and are not specific to this feature.