Ken Burns is one of those people whose achievements appear to diminish in retrospect, and whose later work reveals the faults of their earlier efforts. After sitting through the whole eighteen-and-a-half-hour stretch of “Baseball,” you can hardly help looking back at “The Civil War” and reflecting on the essential falseness of that soulful solo violin and catch-in-the-throat reading of letters whose pathos resided entirely in what subsequently happened to their authors. Yes, Ken, we know it is all very sad, but being sad is not what it was for. Somehow we never found out quite so much about that rather important question as a true history should have told us.

“Baseball,” at half again the length of “The Civil War,” is self-parody. Instead of the “Ashokan Farewell,” there is a seemingly endless series of different arrangements of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and...


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