Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl
PBS // Unrated // $29.99 // November 20, 2012
Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 4, 2012
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Graphical Version

It's unlikely that anyone reading this was alive to remember "The Dust Bowl" firsthand. My grandmother was just entering her teenage years in Abilene, Kansas when the first of countless dust storms brutally ravaged the midwest during the early 1930s. She's not the only still-living survivor of America's worst man-made ecological disaster, of course. Luckily, we get to hear from several during the course of Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl, a sobering four-hour documentary that PBS will air on November 18th and 19th.

As expected, The Dust Bowl goes into great detail about not just the prolonged dust storms and lasting damage they left in their wake, but exactly how the storms were created and the painfully slow recovery process that unfolded for years after Mother Nature finally calmed down. Survivors share heartbreaking memories, from the death of loved ones to the numbing pain of life during unimaginably bad weather. "Black blizzards" covered the dusty landscape of several states, enough to negate visibility at mid-day. Mountains of dirt and debris blew through weather-beaten homes around the clock. Desperate families fled their homes or suffered near-constant health problems, including "dust pneumonia". Property values plummeted as much as 90% in areas that, only years before, were bursting with money-making crops.

Divided into two episodes, "The Great Plow-Up" and "Reaping the Whirlwind" (approx. two hours apiece), The Dust Bowl does a fine job compressing this decade-long disaster into a four-hour production. Vintage photographs, recently recorded interviews, audio clips, home movies and more work in tandem to create a truly captivating experience, while narration by Peter Coyote frames these personal stories with more objective facts and figures. PBS will release The Dust Bowl on DVD and Blu-Ray one day after the second episode airs on November 19th; the latter not only includes a handful of informative extras, but a 1080i transfer that has no problem replicating the highlights and faults of The Dust Bowl's source material.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this 1080i transfer looks as good as expected for this type of documentary. Newly recorded interview clips are crisp and clear, vintage photographs are eye-popping, and older filmed footage looks very rough. Black levels, textures, and image detail are also inconsistent, but it's all part of The Dust Bowl's charm. So while it's a mixed bag in the technical sense, the visual style is fitting and no problems were detected beyond the source material limitations.

HEADS UP: This review's screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's fancy-pants 1080p resolution.

The audio is presented in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1, which is somewhat unfortunate but not a deal-breaker. A majority of this material is modern by design, from recent interviews to tastefully added sound effects during film segments and portions of the narrative stories. Surround channels are generally reserved for weather-related ambiance and music cues, while the dialogue is uniformly clear and easy to understand. An optional Descriptive Video Services audio track and Spanish dub are included in LPCM 2.0 format.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen below, this two-disc release arrives in a dual-hubbed keepcase and includes no slipcover or inserts. A content list is printed on the back. Menu designs are smooth and simple, though portions of the sub-menu text can be a little hard to read. The discs are locked for Region "A" playback only.

Bonus Features

Not much, though it's all directly related to the main feature. These Bonus Clips include "Land of Haze" (15 minutes), "Dust Bowl Stories" (31 minutes), "Uncovering the Dust Bowl" (6 minutes), "Grab a Root and Growl" (12 minutes), "Eyewitnesses" (6 minutes) and "The Dust Bowl Legacy (5 minutes). Aside from a few segments with Ken Burns, these mostly play out like deleted scenes; all are of the same A/V quality as the main feature. Everything is worth watching at least once, though a more cohesive behind-the-scenes documentary would've been nice. Unfortunately, optional SDH subtitles are not included here.

Final Thoughts

As expected, The Dust Bowl is essential viewing for documentary fans or anyone remotely interested in 20th century American history. Ken Burns' familiar format makes just about any subject digestible; when paired with the captivating stories of Dust Bowl survivors and historians, the four-hour production blows by rather quickly. PBS' Blu-Ray pairs a decent technical presentation with a handful of appropriate bonus features, though the nature of this release's source material doesn't consistently demand the full strength of Blu-Ray. Nonetheless, The Dust Bowl comes firmly Recommended for obvious reasons.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.

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