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Television Review

Documentary more than a Whitman sampler

Walt Whitman in 1887. Walt Whitman in 1887. (Library of congress)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 14, 2008

The new "American Experience" about Walt Whitman is an extraordinary act of intimacy. The PBS documentary reaches across the centuries and really lands us in the presence of the great American poet. I can't remember the last time a TV biography brought me so near to the spirit of a man so long gone, a man available to us only through words and photos, not film. Director-writer Mark Zwonitzer and his crew deliver Walt Whitman as Whitman delivered his own world - passionately, sensuously, ridden with the poignancy and variety of ordinary life.

Partly, the success of "Walt Whitman," tonight at 9 on Channel 2, is due to the enduring vitality of Whitman's writing. Throughout the film, we hear strong readings by Chris Cooper, poet Martin Espada, narrator J.K. Simmons, and the Whitman experts assembled for commentary, and you can't help but fall in with the organic flow of "Leaves of Grass" and the poet's journals. The freedom and lull of Whitman's meter pulls us into a sense of oneness with the speaker, as if we are seeing through his piercing eyes the 19th-century New York cabbies and the distracted faces of passing strangers. His ebullient compassion, his worship of the physical and the tactile, his full-bodied embrace of democracy - they remain remarkably seductive.

But there's no denying that the "American Experience" filmmaking opens up and adds resonance to Whitman's lines, dramatically putting them in the context of his life and times as well as our lives and times. "Walt Whitman" brings us near to Whitman literally, lingering on photos of him, his face, the handwriting of his journal entries, particular phrases. Just as "Leaves of Grass" has no boundaries, bringing all the world into its scope, so the movie also seems unaware of boundaries as the camera gets strangely close to its images. We are face to face with stills of old New York, yellowed newspaper reviews, the words of a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he refers to "Leaves of Grass" as "free and brave thought." The ultra-close-up device could be hokey or, worse, filler, and yet "Walt Whitman" transforms it into a narrative strength.

Another potentially hokey method also works well. As the film unveils gorgeous antique photos of soldiers wounded in the Civil War, while Espada reads Whitman's grieving words about battle from "Drum Taps," it also shows black-and-white photos of ailing veterans from contemporary wars. The juxtaposition is seamless and remarkably effective, giving Whitman's 150-year-old emotions profound immediacy. The documentary's similar then-and-now visual sequence accompanying a reading of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is stunning, too, as Whitman imagines us in 2008, reading his poem, feeling what he felt:

It avails not, neither time or place - distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself - also I return - I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh'd by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh'd.

"Walt Whitman" is not a predominantly academic exercise, and certainly facts about Whitman's biography have been omitted. The film takes an emotional approach to its subject, a vagabond who believed that his book of poetry, which he remade into seven editions during his life, could unite people and maybe even stop the Civil War. He was unwilling to tone down his free-form, expressive ways, despite the alienation of the New York newspaper editors he worked for, despite distaste by the literary elite, despite the advice of Emerson. As this documentary shows, he was and, in his work, still is America.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

Walt Whitman

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-10:30

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