11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
PBS (Tues.-Wed., Nov. 4-5, 8 p.m. ET)
Speaking of slow progress, consider the trailblazing expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, under orders from President Thomas Jefferson. Alternately on foot, boat and horseback, 33 explorers took nearly 2½ years (1804-1806) to make the arduous journey from the Mississippi to the Pacific and back. By comparison, documentarian Ken Burns (The Civil War and Baseball) isn't asking viewers to do much: Just sit still for four hours and drink in the history. But that's not as easy as it sounds. With visuals from the period limited to paintings, maps and diary pages, Burns fills the screen primarily with cinematography of a vast, beautiful, unpopulated landscape (tastefully excluding any signs of modern development). As such actors as Adam Arkin and Matthew Broderick read from the explorers' journals, viewers are asked to imagine the trek west as the early-19th-century equivalent of a voyage to another planet. It's a long haul, all right.
Surprisingly the talking heads save the day. Dayton Duncan, the film's writer and coproducer, and author Stephen E. Ambrose (Undaunted Courage) handle the lion's share of the on-camera storytelling (Hal Holbrook does the voice-over narration), and they show such passion for the subject that history takes on the immediacy of discovery.