Mark Twain is the latest in the series of documentaries from America's premier documentary maker, Ken Burns.
Burns set a new standard in US documentaries with his epochal The Civil War, and maintained his own high standard with his history of American baseball - a fascinating study which was more a history of the nation as a whole than of that limited-appeal sport.
Standards slipped somewhat with his long-winded and sepulchral attempt in Jazz to chronicle the history of that music. He relied on too many glib 'experts' in the field to tell that story, giving a forum to such people as the unctuous Wynton Marsalis, rather than letting the music speak for itself.
But with Mark Twain, Ken Burns is back in peak form. This is a terrific look at the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, describing the crowded life which took Samuel Clemens from from riverboat pilot to the top of America's literary heap.
Clemens, or his alter-ego Twain, the documentary shows, eschewed 'literary' style. He tried to speak directly to the public, without affectations of any kind.
Unfortunately, in Huckleberry Finn that meant attempting to write in the Southern idiom, opening the vernacular floodgates for a host of lesser imitators. But even so, Huckleberry Finn is a genuine masterpiece, written by a great man of his time. It's ironic that political correctness in the USA has seen the book banned in many States because of frequent use of the word 'nigger'. The censors have obviously not read the book, or they would realise that it is one of the strongest anti-racist books America has ever produced.
The documentary shows how Mark Twain, while growing up in the deep south, became an anti-racist of great conviction, believing deeply in equality of all men, and truly believing that colour was just a tint of the skin, nothing more. He was a great man. But he was also, in some ways, a flawed man, and Ken Burns doesn't hide those aspects from us, in this totally rounded portrait.
There are some attempts by various commentators at literary criticism, but these are at the most juvenile "he was a great great writer" level. That hardly matters. The portrait is predominantly of the man, not of his creations, and Ken Burns does him proud.
The documentary is black-and-white and colour, and is a judicious blend of archival photography, with both still and moving images, and modern (and often brilliantly evocative) colour footage.
The video quality is very impressive. It would be hard to imagine a higher-quality transfer to DVD of a documentary made for television - this is a definite benefit of Ken Burns' policy of shooting on film not on videotape.
Although there is no attempt made to really utilise the stereo soundstage, the audio is clear and richly layered, with excellent reproduction of both speech and music. The audio propels the documentary, and despite the lack of clear soundstage placement, it succeeds totally in its aims.