Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
I have just been watching Niall Ferguson bestride the globe. He does it in his documentary The War of the World, aired on PBS over the last three weeks. The documentary is the film version of his recent book of the same name. In the book he does a lot of bestriding, too. He ranges over the history of the 20th century, reordering and re-prioritizing as he sees fit. Ferguson is, to say the least, not very interested in the traditional historical narratives of the epoch. He is prepared to see things differently and to let everyone know that he is something of a maverick. Indeed, the documentary is chock full of lingering shots of Ferguson as he drives through or walks around important sites of the 20th century. Here he is, gazing wistfully up at the buildings as his car moves through the streets of Berlin. Next, see him standing meaningfully amidst the ruins of a village near the Greek/Turkish border as he talks about the forms of ethnic cleansing that went on in the area.
As far as technique goes, it is the very opposite of, for instance, the influential documentary makers Ric and Ken Burns (The Civil War, New York). For the Burns brothers, historical filmmaking is not so much about arguing over possible interpretations as about getting to the immediacy of the stories that are beyond interpretation. The Burns Brothers never show themselves. They keep the craftsman out of the picture. Tellingly, they pioneered the innovative technique of moving the camera slowly across or zooming in and out of still pictures and historical documents. The technique becomes a metaphor for the unbiased but sympathetic eye of “The Historian” writ large. The Burns brothers suggest that they are merely ciphers, mediums through which this ‘Historical Eye” can carry the definitive story of history directly out of the past and into the living present.
Ferguson puts himself front and center. Handsome, Scottish, bold. He wants to shock us with the audacity of his interpretations. This is part and parcel of his historical approach, in which the events being narrated and the characters doing the narration are tangled up in one another. History is a realm of contestation.