Ken Burns Documentaries

DVD Review: Ken Burns’ Brooklyn Bridge – I Got Something To Sell You…

Filmed in 1981, this hour-long documentary by noted filmmaker Ken Burns chronicles the building of the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River in New York City. It was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the completion of the bridge, which was celebrated in 1983.

This was the first major documentary Burns filmed for PBS, and in some ways, it shows. Brooklyn Bridge also shows the promise of his talent that would come to fruition with many of the documentaries he has won awards for.

The first part of Brooklyn Bridge focuses on the building of the bridge. The bridge was the vision of John A. Roebling. It was completed by his son, Washington Roebling. John Roebling was the first to construct suspension bridges and was the inventor of the wire rope used on these types of bridges. Washington Roebling got most of his practical experience during the Civil War. At the war’s end, the senior Roebling was building what was then the largest suspension bridge in Cincinnati.

John Roebling had his foot crushed while surveying for the bridge. He died 17 days later of lockjaw (tetanus). At 32 years old, Washington Roebling was in charge of the building of a bridge that hadn’t even been designed yet. Washington coordinated much of the work on the bridge through his wife from his sickbed after becoming ill with “The Bends” during the construction process. Construction began in 1869 and wasn’t completed until 1883.

It’s hard to imagine now, when I recall looking down on that bridge so many times in my life from the skyscrapers in New York City, but the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge were the tallest structures at the time. At the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, one out of every four bridges built was collapsing.

While Burns does a terrific job detailing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, there seems to be a bit lacking the impact this had culturally. At the time, the only way to get between Brooklyn and Manhattan was by ferries unless the River froze over. The building of the bridge opened up a whole new place for workers to live and then travel to work every day with the ease of walking over the Bridge. The commute was invented! But there’s not much talked about in regard to how that impacted the city, getting people out of some of the crowded areas they lived in such as Hell’s Kitchen. It would have been nice to have a better grasp of just what the effect of the Brooklyn Bridge – and the bridges that followed – had on the city and region as a whole.

That said, Burns is a master photographer and knows how to present an image. That’s definitely true here with some nice time-lapse photography of the Bridge through two days and one night. The artistic depictions of the bridge that he films are beautiful and show signs of how he would treat subjects in the future as he lovingly pans over them, although for this documentary they don’t seem to have the same emotional weight he would evoke with future subjects. Part of the reason might also be the soundtrack as it wasn’t memorable to me at all the way it usually is.

This is a good documentary, but for what I’ve come to expect from Burns it just isn’t up to snuff. This was early in his career, so it’s understandable. I wonder how different his treatment of the subject would be now. Still, it’s an interesting subject and the visual presentation is well done.


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

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