In US, national symbol makes for unique video

As you watch ``The Statue of Liberty'' -- a rewarding 60-minute documentary home video from Vestron ($24.95) -- something remarkable happens: Most of the mental clich'es surrounding that national symbol drop away, and you begin seeing it anew. No startling, new information is offered -- this is not a revisionist's telling of the statue's story. But the video in an informative, open-minded, and sometimes touching way meaningfully places the statue in its long historical setting.

Directed by Ken Burns, written by Bernard A. Weisberger and Geoffrey C. Ward, and narrated by historian David McCulloch, the film was nominated for an Academy Award last year after playing in movie theaters. As a tape (to be released on May 28), it is particularly timely, of course, since massive 100th-anniversary festivities are planned for July 4th.

Highly publicized flaps about the statue's current restoration have occurred since the film was made: Lee Iacocca, former chairman of a federal advisory commission, resigned the post (although he kept a related one). And streaks that have appeared on the side of the statue's face have been making news lately.

But controversy over the statue was typical, you learn, from the time it was a gleam in the eye of artist Fr'ed'eric Auguste Bartholdi, ``a man who wasn't even sure he liked Americans,'' the documentary says.

You hear of the early skepticism on the part of many New Yorkers, the huge engineering challenges, the financial crises, the suffragist protests (only two women were among the 600 dignitaries invited to the 1886 unveiling of this statue of a woman), and other rough passages along the statue's road from France to the New York Harbor.

Old photos, movies, paintings, and other art works are effectively blended with sequences produced for the film. The compelling flow of eclectic images -- sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expository -- tells its own story, as Mr. McCulloch's voice traces an informative path through 100 years of facts and hopes and ideals.

The treatment throughout is one of deft selectivity and low-key detachment. Probably the most effective aspect of all are the brief interviews, spotted throughout the hour, that deal with the meaning of liberty as symbolized by the statue, especially for immigrants. The speakers range from film director Milos Forman to New York Governor Mario Cuomo and also include author James Baldwin's comment that the statue's message for American blacks is ``simply a very bitter joke.''

This negative view fits easily into the film's generally positive tone because of the prevailing sense of intellectual honesty.

The production doesn't need to pontificate -- it lets the interviews carry the message. Their cumulative impact rings with unrestrained gratitude for the statue and for the land whose spirit it symbolizes.

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