The Congress (1988)

TV Movie  |   |  Documentary
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The U. S. Congress is one of the country's most important and misunderstood institutions. Ken Burns tells the story behind this branch of government.



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Credited cast:
David McCullough ...
Himself - Writer / Narrator
Charles McDowell ...
Himself - Newspaperman
Barbara Fields ...
Herself - Historian
John C. Stennis ...
Himself - Former Senator
Alistair Cooke ...
Himself - Journalist
Herself - Journalist
David Broder ...
Himself - Reporter
George Tames ...
Himself - Photographer
James MacGregor Burns ...
Himself - Historian
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Jerome Dempsey ...
Ronnie Gilbert ...


The U. S. Congress is one of the country's most important and misunderstood institutions. Ken Burns tells the story behind this branch of government.

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User Reviews

Good, but the topic is WAY too broad for the time allotted to this film.
11 October 2011 | by (Bradenton, Florida) – See all my reviews

I have a lot more criticism of this film than most viewers would--simply because of my background as a history and government teacher. So, I noticed things others probably wouldn't--just like a baseball fan would notice problems in a documentary about baseball that non-fans would not notice. So, when you read all my comments, keep this in mind.

This film by Ken Burns attempts what seems impossible--to encapsulate the history of Congress in only 91 minutes!! This SHOULD have been something for a mini-series but Burns did a dandy job of shoving in an explanation of it as well as the highlights over the last 200+ years--albeit it was a HURRIED film. It covers such major topics as slavery and sectionalism, the power of big business on Congress in the 1800s (and this sure hasn't changed), the 17th Amendment, Progressive politics, the Nixon trial and the Capitol building itself. But, it also misses many important topics--a couple of which are inexplicably absent. How could the film never explain exactly HOW Congress works--the process, the differences between the House and Senate, overriding vetoes and the like? And, most confusing, how could the film mention the Nixon trials in 1974 without also talking about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson a hundred years earlier? So, when it comes to completely encapsulating what is Congress, it is a failure. Now this does NOT mean it's a bad film--it's just a very incomplete film--mostly because there just wasn't enough time for such a big undertaking. Oddly, Burns DID make some exceptionally long documentaries (such as on the Civil War, WWII and baseball)--but this just isn't the case here.

One important thing about the film--it IS interesting. The interviews are generally very good and the use of old film and photos exceptional--like you'd find in any Burns documentary. Well made.

By the way, as I said above, having taught American history as well as government, I noticed that a common mistake was repeated in the film. According to the film, the Constitution "guaranteed the separation of Church and State". Actually, this isn't in the Constitution at all (though popular opinion is that it is) but comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson well after the Constitution was adopted. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion AND guarantees that there will be no national religion (such as England and the Church of England). The phrase 'separation of church and state' as well as the concepts just aren't there but were later assumed to be. This isn't my opinion--this just is what the document actually says.

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