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Decades of fascinating and enlightening documentary work by filmmaker Ken Burns form the core of his self-titled app, which draws on close to four hours of footage compiled from documentaries covering a huge breadth of material relating to American history. While we’d have liked to have some longer clips included, careful, almost meticulous design and curation underpins everything. Only the 13-scene, 31-minute innovation playlist is available free, though; the rest of the videos and the other five playlists are locked behind a $9.99 in-app purchase.
This could have easily been a lazy advertisement for Burns' films, which the app points out are all available to buy and watch in full on Netflix, iTunes, and via PBS, but there’s a clear attempt to make the clipped stories stand on their own. Burns tells human stories, which are relatable and moving regardless of whether they’re about your average Joe, a brilliant artist, a gang of murderers, or a larger-than-life legend. And this humanity shines through in the short one-to-five minute clips on offer, as well as through the considered, insightful introductions that Burns provides ahead of a selection of videos.
Human history is just people making decisions and living their lives, even when extraordinary or terrible things happen, and the app embodies that idea while simultaneously relating events to today. It gets across much of the who, how, and why of big moments in the American story. You’ll see patterns and themes and remarkable ingenuity whether you view videos chronologically, by theme (war, art, race, innovation, hard times, and politics), or by film. You’ll also learn how great architecture was built and how sports and music tied into political and social upheaval or tragedy, and you’ll meet some astonishing people. But it’s hard not to wish for more, in either the form of more clips or longer snippets from the 23 films the scenes are sourced from.
The bottom line. Three decades of documentary films covering every facet of American history coalesce into one fascinating, well-produced app, though the length of the clips can disappoint.
iPad running iOS 7.0 or later
Thoughtful design and presentation. Hours of insightful and fascinating video. Huge variety of historical topics covered.
Some clips seem unnecessarily short.