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Amid the glitzy new fall network shows and the fact that everything else on the tube is being chopped into tinier and tinier sound bites to snag our supposedly ever-shrinking attention spans, two new works starting this week buck all prevailing trends by reintroducing the notion of nobly intended loooooooong-form television. PBS’ Frontline offers the six-and-a-half-hour documentary The Farmer’s Wife, about a failing Nebraska farm and, as one result, the marriage failing with it. And CNN commences a no-less-than-24-hour-long historical examination, Cold War, to be shown in weekly 60-minute chapters.
The Farmer’s Wife follows the manure-clotted travails of the Buschkoetter family, Darrel and Juanita and their three adorable, intelligent little girls. Writer-producer-directer David Sutherland shot The Farmer’s Wife over three years, from 1994 to ’97, as Darrel and Juanita ran their 1,100-acre farm double-handedly, sweated out the paltry government loans keeping them afloat, and grew into different people. At the start of the film, Darrel is an energetic young man full of spunk and confidence, while Juanita is mostly shy and tired. By the end, with filmmaker Sutherland having achieved a remarkable degree of intimacy (his cameras even follow the couple into the bedroom for an exhausted, murmured argument),
The Farmer’s Wife has justified its title. Darrel is a man beaten (by the elements — most of his crops fail — and a bureaucracy that whittles away at his dignity), while Juanita has become a fighter, dickering with the government for funds, putting herself through business school, and, because of Darrel’s workload, pretty much raising their children alone.
The Farmer’s Wife captures the soul-crunching tedium of a life spent miles from neighbors or a city, but, like Darrel’s plow, it goes over the same ground again and again: This documentary could have been half as long and still broken our hearts just as wrenchingly.
On the other hand, Cold War fully inhabits its sprawl. Overseen by executive producer Jeremy Isaacs (The World at War), this vastly ambitious documentary proceeds chronologically from the end of World War I through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The production boasts such coups as a lively interview with Fidel Castro and a more contemplative one with Kennedy aide McGeorge Bundy, recorded three weeks before his death. Less of a coup for the Vietnam War section is Country Joe McDonald, on hand to warble ”I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” one more feeble time.
Cold War isn’t a masterpiece: Because it features different producers and writers for its many episodes, it fails to hang together stylistically. There’s no poetry to the filmmaking; it just gallops along, year after year, peaking with particularly strong segments on American hugger-mugger in Latin America. But with adroit editing, cogent interviews, and the no-nonsense narration of actor Kenneth Branagh, it does one particularly good thing: It frees the TV documentary from the Ken Burns style — the elegiac lyricism that made The Civil War so striking and influential, and everything after it so derivative and corny.