Cable News Network's latest documentary mega-series,
the 10-hour Millennium, moves along surprisingly quickly with a deft blend of
fact-filled narration, computer graphics and dramatic re-enactments.
CNN's Cold War, roughly twice as long, seems
leisurely by comparison, since Millennium must condense highlights from each
century into an hour.
Each hour, in turn, is divided magazinelike into five
vignettes focusing on key moments or people affecting a culture's development --
patterned after Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's book Millennium: A History of Our Last
Cold War was more gripping, since it dealt with
dramatic East/West conflicts, whereas Millennium tries for a broader perspective,
as seen in each hour's title; the 15th century, for one, is labeled
"The Century of the Sail."
With less archival material to work with, Millennium
is free to rely on livelier computer-generated images -- including a spectacular opening
montage of the Great Wall of China, Christopher Columbus' three ships and the Taj
Mahal -- and superb photography.
Some hours -- indeed, some vignettes -- are more
interesting than others. But overall, not only the photography and graphics, but the
editing, writing and actor Ben Kingsley's narration deserve kudos, as do the
project's co-executive producers, Pat Mitchell and Jeremy Isaacs.
Unfortunately, the first two hours are the least arresting.
But even these are made more palatable by the use of computer graphics to recreate Native
Americans' 800-room Pueblo Bonito, a 12th century complex in New Mexico.
The best pieces include one in the third episode on Genghis
Khan and another on his grandson, Kublai Khan, who ruled China until his 140,000-person
navy was destroyed by a typhoon while en route to Japan.
The fourth hour opens with a bleak look at "the Black
Death [that] threatened civilization with extinction" in Europe, Asia and North
Africa, and it then segues to flourishing civilizations in West Africa and Java, which
were unaffected by the plague.
The finale, on the 20th century, touches on the
Wild West, World War II, communism, the communications revolution, the global population
explosion and the immigration influx in the United States, all too briefly.
That hour's most striking visual sequence uses
computer-created skylines to illustrate the economic growth of Pacific Rim nations.
CNN's Millennium will run Sundays at 10 p.m.,
starting this past Sunday (Oct. 10) and continuing through Dec. 12.