TV-PG | 3h 58min | Documentary, Nature | 4 July 2022 (USA)
Releasing a limited TV documentary series titled “America the Beautiful” (ATB) on the fourth of July is nothing if not brilliant timing and superb counter-programming.
Not everyone and their brother are going to watch the fifth entry in the “Despicable Me” franchise or the fourth incarnation of “Thor.” It also helps that you don’t have to go to a theater to see it (although it would look excellent on an IMAX screen).
Bringing the world to our doorsteps in print since 1888 and via TV screens for close to 60 years, the folks at the National Geographical Society certainly know how to put on a show and, from purely visual and cinematography perspectives, “ATB” is devastatingly impressive and truly awe-inspiring.
In a manner not unlike that seen in the “Star Gate” sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the five “ATB” co-directors introduce sped-up aerial photography of eclectic North American locales and terrains which is used throughout this six-part, 238 minute-long series and it never grows old or fails to knock the viewer out.
The first episode (“Land of Heroes”) is by far the best of the series, mostly because it’s the first time we see everything. No, that’s not a typo and the wording will be explained shortly.
We witness a resourceful squirrel hording acorns in Wyoming’s Grand Teton; nature’s slow but steady organic recovery in the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mt. St Helens in Washington State; a 15 foot, 1,000 pound American Alligator in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin; and the hunting of a school of anchovies by dolphins and sea lions near the San Diego coast.
A Brilliant One-Two Opening
One can almost feel the heat rising up out of the scorched earth in Death Valley or take calm respite in the spectacular time-lapse turning of the fall leaves on New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
The episode concludes with the mesmerizing, dancing, cool-hued colors of the Northern Lights (the Aurora Borealis) in Alaska’s summer skies and our first glimpse of a majestic Bald Eagle. The only thing better would have been the inclusion of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.”
The second episode (“Brave New World”) is almost as good and is the only installment in the series to include humans on-screen. Animal doctors set about the mammoth task of repopulating three million acres of former forests in the Northern Great Plains with endangered Bison.
A father-daughter team near Stillwater Cove, California, adjacent to the Pebble Beach golf course, remove over 50,000 (out of over one million present) decaying and eventually poisonous golf balls from the ocean floor.
At one point in the early 1970s, the population of the Florida Panther (the official Florida state animal) had dwindled to around 20 but by 2017 it had increased to 230, still an anemic and troubling number. So hard are they to locate, specialists working in the Florida Wildlife Corridor had to set up multiple motion-sensor cameras just to confirm their numbers.
Running the entire length of the state and covering over 17 million acres, the Corridor is the home of over 700 threatened and/or endanger species, some of which live in close proximity to humans and high-volume interstates, especially I-75. By everyone’s measuring stick, the work of the nearly 40-year-old conservation group has been a roaring success, proving it is indeed possible for man and nature to happily “co-exist.”
By the middle of the third episode (“Northland”), the series not only starts losing steam, it begins to get redundant. The Tetons, the Northern Lights. and Mt. St. Helens are revisited and before the entire thing is over, Death Valley and the Grand Canyon are featured three or more times each. Scenarios profiling owls, prairie dogs, bears, and alligators show up in five of the six episodes.
This isn’t to say the final 3 1/2 episodes are a waste of time; far from it. There is at least 15 or more minute’s worth of primo original, non-repetitive material in all six episodes. The trouble is all six episodes are 45 minutes or longer.
Had the filmmakers produced two one-hour episodes which were region-specific (the North, South, East, and West would have worked well), the final product would have been as lean and mean as the first two installments.
Poor Time Management
The ultimate success or failure of any documentary, whether the subject be nature, science, biography, sports, the arts, or what have you, isn’t so much how great it looks (which certainly helps), but how well it manages time. The recent Texas-based “Deep in the Heart” is a perfect example. It’s “only” 103 minutes long yet there’s not a wasted frame to be found.
Here, the narration provided by Michael B. Jordan (“Black Panther,” the “Creed” franchise) is agreeable, but unspectacular and his stabs at humor (by way of the producers) all fall flat. Also, the repeated use and misuse of the word “hero” becomes problematic. Virtually every animal is referred to as a “hero” for reasons (foraging for food mostly) that don’t remotely fit the definition of the word. Conversely, none of the humans from the second episode are ever referred to as “heroes,” although what they do regarding helping the environment is somewhat brave and selfless.
Finally, at no point does Jordan ever say “The United States of America” but rather the blanket “North America.” Technically, this is correct as there is a single passage shot in Canada, but nothing whatsoever taking place in Mexico, the third North American country.
To the filmmakers’ credit, politics, guilt-trips, and moral finger-wagging are thankfully absent, which is a big plus.
There is an excellent two-hour movie hiding inside this nearly four-hour series. Some significant edits and an overhauling of the narration would have made it a “must-see.” As it exists now, it’s merely a pretty decent way to spend a lazy, rainy afternoon.
The series premiers on Disney+ on July 4.
‘America the Beautiful’
Directors: Tom Stephens, Maddie Close, Lauren Pascoe, Rob Sullivan, Jo Harvey
Running Time: 3 hours, 58 minutes
TV Rating: TV-PG
Release Date: July 4, 2022
Rating: 3 out of 5