'Empire of the Air' profiles three giants of American radio

TELEVISION REVIEW

January 29, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Ken Burns' best work hypnotizes. Literally.

And, though, Burns' "Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio" lacks the sustained transcendence of "The Civil War," it has stretches that will pull you into its story and transport you like almost nothing else on television.

"Empire of the Air," a two-hour film that airs at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), is not trying to be "The Civil War." Its focus -- the lives of three men collectively considered the fathers of radio in America -- is far more modest by Burns' standards. But, because the lives are so representative and so intertwined in a story with such profound effects on 20th century life, modest for Burns is still a mountain of generally good history made compelling in the telling.

The three men profiled in "Empire" are: David Sarnoff, the immigrant who went from grinding poverty to become chairman of RCA; Edwin Howard Armstrong, whose inventions provided the technological underpinnings of radio as we know it; and Lee de Forest, whose vacuum tube helped make the radio part of virtually every home in America.

That's what they did. Who they were is what Burns distills and makes fascinating as he explains it. Armstrong is the true inventor -- that American type so important in late 19th and early 20th century life. The man bent over a lamp, who in his lonely laboratory quest finds a path that changes society. Sarnoff is the Horatio Alger story, who rose by pluck, luck, a little lying and a steamroller mentality that crushed opposition in his climb from newsboy to corporate chieftain. De Forest is credited with discovering the vacuum tube, but it's not clear that he really ever understood it. In his later years, living in Hollywood with his fourth wife, he was clearly more concerned with finding a good public relations consultant to keep his name in the news than he was any matters of scientific inquiry. All three -- but especially Armstrong and de Forest -- spent most of their adult lives embroiled in lawsuits with each other over patents and their place in broadcasting history. The end of Armstrong's story -- a bitter suicide after losing his biggest battle to the mighty Sarnoff and RCA -- is the stuff of novels.

And Burns has found a way of storytelling on TV that's as compelling and as rich an experience as the best novel you ever read. There are layers upon layers of techniques in a Burns documentary, which add up to the hypnotic effect.

Notice from the first frame how Burns works with light and dark. The dark night sky, a crack of lightning. The darkened screen in one frame illuminated in the next by the glow of radio tubes coming life. There's a back and forth rhythm between light and darkness that suggests its own drama and tension -- like Faulkner or maybe the Old Testament. And Burns takes the darkness one step further, regularly forcing viewers to look at empty blue and black screens while snatches of radio broadcasts play on the soundtrack. The viewer sees with his or her "mind's eye" when he hears only the words and music and sees a blank screen instead of pictures.

Then there's the dense, dense soundtrack. The lonely fiddle and acoustic instruments heard on "The Civil War" soundtrack are back to provide one layer of sound. Jason Robards' narration provides another layer. Yet another layer comes from interviews with media historians, men and women who knew the three radio pioneers, as well as such radio voices as Red Barber and Garrison Keillor. And then, there are all those portions of actual radio broadcasts -- from Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats to to the white men doing the voices of Amos 'n' Andy.

And, all the while, Burns is dropping in evocative, sometimes startling family-album style still photographs and altering our relationship to the mix through overly close close-up, slow camera pullbacks and extra-long long shots.

That's how he hypnotizes. His work is so carefully paced in picture and sound that it is like watching a pendulum and hearing a reassuring voice draw you into the object of your gaze. The spell doesn't hold for the full two hours tonight the way it did for almost all of "The Civil War." But "Empire of the Air" is worth it for those moments when it does.

The new film is preceded at 8 tonight on MPT by a repeat of Burns' "Brooklyn Bridge" documentary.

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