“Documentaries are traditionally advocacy,” Burns said. He sees his films as acts of “emotional archeology” that aspire to be art.
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson
This article originally appeared at TheNewYorker.com.
By Ian Parker.
Even in a fractious era, the filmmaker still believes that his documentaries can bring every viewer in.
Like Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith, Ken Burns has a summer house on Lake Sunapee, in New Hampshire. The property is furnished with Shaker quilts and a motorboat; every July 4th, a fifteen-foot-long American flag hangs over the back deck. He bought the house in the mid-nineties, with money earned from “The Civil War,” his nine-part PBS documentary series, and its spinoffs. When PBS first broadcast that series, in a weeklong binge in the fall of 1990, the network reached its largest-ever audience. The country agreed to gather as if at a table covered with old family photographs, in a room into which someone had invited an indefatigable fiddle player. Johnny Carson praised the series in successive “Tonight Show” monologues; stores in Washington, D.C., reportedly sold out of blank videocassettes. To the satisfaction of many viewers, and the dismay of some historians, Burns seemed to have shaped American history into the form of a modern popular memoir: a tale of wounding and healing, shame and redemption. (The Civil War was “the traumatic event in our childhood,” as Burns later put it.) History became a quasi-therapeutic exercise in national unburdening and consensus building. Burns recently recalled, “People started showing up at the door, wanting to share their photographs of ancestors.”
Burns is now sixty-four. He is friends with John Kerry and John McCain. He has been a character on “Clifford’s Puppy Days,” the animated children’s series—“What’s a documentary?” “Great question!”—and has been a guest at the Bohemian Grove, the off-the-record summer camp in Northern California for male members of the American establishment. Visitors to his office see a display of framed Burns-related cartoons, most of which assume familiarity with his filmmaking choices: an authoritative narrator offset by more emotionally committed interviewees, seen in half-lit, vaguely domestic surroundings; slow panning shots across photographs of men with mustaches; and a willingness, unusual in the genre, to attempt compendiousness, to keep going. Last year, a headline in the Onion read“Ken Burns Completes Documentary About Fucking Liars Who Claimed They Watched Entire ‘Jazz’ Series.”
Burns’s company, Florentine Films, is based in Walpole, New Hampshire, where Burns has lived since the late seventies. The company has thirty-four full-time employees, and a schedule of documentaries that extends to 2030. When Paula Kerger, PBS’s president and C.E.O., recently introduced Burns at a public event in Los Angeles, she quoted a tweet that described him as “the Marvel Studios of PBS.” Burns’s future plans—of varying uncertainty—include a series about country music, to be broadcast in 2019, and multipart films about the Mayo Clinic, Muhammad Ali, Ernest Hemingway, the American Revolution, Lyndon B. Johnson, Barack Obama, Winston Churchill, crime and punishment in America, and the African-American experience from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Great Migration. Burns, who has not yet strayed from American subjects, and whose work tends to display a kind of wishful patriotism—a soaring appreciation of something that’s not quite there—explained Churchill’s place on the list by saying, “Thank God that he had an American mother.”
At Lake Sunapee, which is an hour’s drive from Walpole, Burns likes to take a daily walk. A three-mile loop, on quiet streets, leads him up a hill, and then down to Sunapee Harbor, which has the tidy calm—a bandstand, a little museum—of a place about to be turned to ash in a disaster movie. When I joined him one morning in July, he was wearing a T-shirt, decorated with palm trees, advertising a public radio station in Miami. He walked fast. He pointed out a house that he knew to be currently occupied by witches, and a small hotel that had the air of being “back in the forties or fifties, when there were no interstates.” The people of Sunapee either knew Burns as a neighbor or recognized him as a public figure. He is made conspicuous by an unusual mass of collar-length hair, which resembles the removable piece on the top of a Lego figure. (In 1975, Burns had long hair, and a hairdresser cut most of it off; he still uses that hairdresser, exclusively.) As we walked, Burns said hello to everyone. When he congratulated a man on the progress he was making in the construction of a house, the man explained his success by saying, “I’m old and alone.”
When Burns bought the lake house, in 1994, he was recently divorced, and had two young daughters. One of them, Sarah, is now a writer and director of documentaries; she made “The Central Park Five,” in 2012, with her father and David McMahon, her husband. Lilly, her younger sister, is a showrunner on “Broad City,” the Comedy Central series. Burns remarried in 2003, and with his second wife had two more daughters. This summer, when he came to the lake with the girls—now twelve and six—he had again recently divorced. Alongside more troubled thoughts, he was able to describe optimism: since the breakup, he said, his relationships with his younger children had “quadrupled in their intensity and love and intimacy.”
His apparent openness and his buoyancy—for more than thirty years, he’s had an audience for Dad jokes—are sometimes obscured by speechifying. His default conversational setting is Commencement Address, involving quotation from nineteenth-century heroes and from his own previous commentary, and moments of almost rhapsodic self-appreciation. He is readier than most people to regard his creative decisions as courageous, and he told me that when people make uninvited suggestions about how he might change his working habits he imagines someone saying, “Mr. Cézanne, how about some watercolors?” As Peter Miller, a close friend since junior-high school, in Ann Arbor, recently noted, fondly, Burns is “not without ego.” He can be sharp, almost peevish, in response to criticism of his work. But he’s keen to appreciate jokes about his reputation. A few years ago, he appeared with the comedian Eugene Mirman in a short film promoting Hampshire College, their alma mater. (“Stop panning!” Mirman shouts at one point. “I’m being panned to death!”) Recalling this, Burns noted, “There’s always this surprise that I’m a good sport.”
When we stopped by the general store, a man took a moment to connect the face and the career. He filibustered—“Ah, ah, ah . . . ”—before continuing, “I watch all of your documentaries. I can’t get enough of them. They should have more.”
Burns began to reply: “In September, we have—”
The man interrupted, to give his name.
“Nice to meet you,” Burns said. “I’m Ken Burns.”
“I know,” the man said.
“In September, we have ten parts—eighteen hours—on the history of the Vietnam War,” Burns said.
“Nice,” the man said.
Later, we talked on Burns’s deck, and looked out over the lake. He listed, in descending order, the films that members of the public most press him to make: “Railroads, labor, immigration. And then: ‘My great-great-grandfather wrote four volumes about the Civil War. He didn’t go, but . . . ’ ” He laughed. He later said, “After ‘The Vietnam War,’ I’ll have to lie low. A lot of people will think I’m a Commie pinko, and a lot of people will think I’m a right-wing nutcase, and that’s sort of the way it goes.”
Burns’s girls, who were playing with a babysitter, occasionally came onto the deck to ask for help with Band-Aids, or with ideas for Charades. One time when Willa, his six-year-old, emerged, Burns found it easy to persuade her to recite a list of U.S. Presidents. She hesitated only once or twice. “You always put Ulysses Grant too early,” her father said, gently.
A motorboat, flying a Trump flag, stopped not far offshore. “I don’t think they’re going to fish,” Burns said, and he made a remark about the Texas School Book Depository. He wasn’t sure if the people on the boat were trying to rile political opponents. “I don’t know what they can provoke,” he said. “They have all the guns. We can’t do anything.”
General Merrill McPeak flew two hundred and sixty-nine combat missions in Vietnam. He became Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and retired from the military in 1994. He is tall and lean, and has a quiet, deadpan swagger. (He makes remarks like “The trouble flying with me is that you don’t know you’ve landed.”) In 2012, he agreed to be interviewed by Lynn Novick, Burns’s co-director on “The Vietnam War”; later, McPeak became a consultant on the series, with particular responsibility for technical detail. He was asked, for example, to approve the engine sounds that Burns’s colleagues added to silent film of military aircraft.
It’s an oddity of the Burns technique that many of his most conspicuous interviewees—including the novelist and historian Shelby Foote, in “The Civil War,” and the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, in “Jazz”—also have an editorial role. They become part of a group of paid historical experts, perhaps two dozen strong, who, during production, meet with the filmmakers, in New York and Walpole, to discuss script drafts and view early edits.
Novick has worked at Florentine Films since 1989. She recalled the first consultants’ meeting for “Jazz,” in the mid-nineties. A question was asked: Would it be better to describe the roots of jazz as African or American? Two participants, disagreeing, “almost came to blows,” she said, adding, “One got up and left and never came back.”
A few weeks ago, General McPeak met with Burns and Novick in a hotel restaurant in Beverly Hills. They were scheduled to appear together at an evening preview of “The Vietnam War,” and at a subsequent panel discussion. The series, which took ten years to make, and cost about thirty million dollars, was largely finished a year ago; by this summer, Burns had already spoken at more than a dozen such events. (“Rinse and repeat,” he said.) He had been onstage the previous night, in San Francisco, and had at one point invited Vietnam veterans and former war protesters in the audience to stand up, together, and accept applause. In the morning, passing through airport security, he had removed from his pants pockets a few items that he always carries: a button from the uniform of a soldier who participated in the D Day landing; a silver heart; a minié ball that a friend picked up at Gettysburg.
Over lunch, McPeak described a moment when he and the other advisers first saw a scene about the release and repatriation of American prisoners of war, in 1973. On the soundtrack, Burns had added Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.” At least one adviser found this too triumphal; an ex-P.O.W. in the room did not. “I was kind of in the middle of that, hoping to bridge an unbridgeable gap,” McPeak said. He came to agree with Burns that viewers deserved a moment of emotional, perhaps tearful, release: “There’s not much about our Vietnam experience that is uplifting,” he said. “It’s mostly an enormous downer. But, if there’s any glimmer of good news, it was that we got our guys back.”
McPeak also recalled an objection that he’d made to a script change. In a section about the massacre of South Vietnamese civilians, in My Lai, in 1968, “murder” became “killing.” (The final script: “The killing of civilians has happened in every war.”) McPeak pressed for “murder.” His argument, he said, was, “Let’s open the kimono—let’s tell it all, see it the way it is.”
At lunch, Burns defended his change, on the ground that My Lai continues to have “a toxic, radioactive effect” on opinion. “Killing” was the better word, he said, “even though My Lai is murder.”
The general had lost that argument but accepted the final wording. At the restaurant, he told me, “I’m in. I don’t think it’s tough enough, but I’m in.” (He had already praised the film as “monumental work.”) He went on, “I believe My Lai was my fault. My responsibility.” He had been a senior officer in a U.S. military that “never stepped up to accept responsibility.”
Burns, struck by these words, said, “I’m so glad that we know you.”
Earlier, Burns had said, “Documentaries are traditionally advocacy: ‘Here’s a big problem. Here are the bad guys. Here are the good guys. How do we change this?’ That’s fine. It’s like an editorial, and that’s what editorials do.” He described his own films, in contrast, as exercises in “emotional archeology” that aspire to be works of art. “We just happen to work in history,” he said. (He sometimes talks of the need to enliven “the dry dates, facts, and events of the past.”) Burns frequently—almost hourly—says, “Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time,” paraphrasing a remark made by Wynton Marsalis, in “Jazz.” Burns uses the line less to acknowledge historical uncertainty than to advertise inclusiveness: a desire to guide all but the most sectarian or jaded viewers through an obstacle course of their own biases. He is not disengaged from his material, but his sense of a subject, and his sense of an audience’s reaction to that subject, seem to be fused. He once said, “I want to bring everybody in.”
That instinct, from which Burns is afforded little respite, can give him the air of someone running for office. In the late eighties, while making “The Civil War,” Burns started carrying with him a copy of a letter written by a Union Army officer, Sullivan Ballou, to his wife, a week before his death in battle. Ballou’s words, which have some of the iambic sinew of the Gettysburg Address—“how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution . . .”—became well known after they were included in the film. “I can’t tell you how many lunches and dinners he’d pull out the letter and read it aloud,” Dayton Duncan, a writer and producer of Burns’s projects, said. “The other members of the family would be rolling their eyes, but I always found it moving.”
In the decades since “The Civil War,” Burns has evolved into an editor-in-chief. After Florentine has committed to a subject, the company sends out proposals to seduce funders. A director starts identifying interview subjects; a writer starts on a script. Geoffrey Ward, who has written the bulk of Burns’s scripts since the mid-eighties, as well as his own books of American history, wrote “The Vietnam War.” Burns sometimes still conducts interviews, although Lynn Novick did eighty-five of the hundred interviews filmed for “The Vietnam War.” These sessions use a single camera. The eyes of an interviewee are flooded with light, as if for an ophthalmological examination. The setting, Novick told me, has to register as “a real place—not a studio—but not so much of a real place that you’re curious about where you are.” (Her apartment, on the Upper West Side, has been used in eight documentaries.) A session often begins with an effort to dampen an interviewee’s dreams of becoming the Shelby Foote of the new series—the alpha anecdotalist.
In the early years of production on a documentary, Burns gives his opinion on script revisions and interviews. He’s likely to be reading relevant historical accounts—this summer, in preparation for the probable L.B.J. project, he revisited Robert Caro’s acclaimed multi-volume biography, and for the series on post-Civil War African-American history he was reading about the Ku Klux Klan. But he does not strive for expertise. “I can’t be in the weeds” of scholarship, he said. He has too little time, and, besides, “It’s important to have someone saying, ‘Who the fuck cares?’ ”
There are more Vietnamese voices in “The Vietnam War” than Burns at first thought necessary. Novick had to make the case for including them. “I wanted to pull them back, because we’re making an American film,” he said. “Her genius was to insist.” One powerful interview is with Bảo Ninh, the novelist and former North Vietnamese soldier, who describes returning home from war: “Six years without a letter. For six years, my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. Can you imagine the happiness of a mother?” But, out of respect for neighbors, the family didn’t celebrate: “In our apartment building, six young men were drafted, and I was the only one to return.”
Burns, warding off potential critics, told me that the way he delegates is “lawful”—it breaks no filmmaking rules. He added, “The one thing I won’t give up is that primacy in the editing room. The films are made there. No amount of rare or never-before-seen archival material, or even great interviews—and they are great—can replace the triage, the decisions.” (When absorbed in editing, he often ends up sitting on his haunches.) “I seem to know what we should do next,” he said—both at the start, when the material is “this incoherent blob,” and later. He told me that Amy Stechler, his first wife, who collaborated on his early documentaries, once announced that she’d cut two frames—a twelfth of a second—out of an hour-long film; he identified the cut.
Two or three years into a major project—perhaps at a time when another series is nearing broadcast, and yet another is being born—Burns is able to watch a “blind assembly” of a documentary’s first episode. This contains only two elements: clips from interviews and a narration recorded, temporarily, by Burns. Even more than Peter Coyote, the actor who has become Burns’s usual narrator, Burns makes a script sound like a eulogy read by a depressive, with every sentence suggesting slight disappointment. (“He doesn’t like rising tones,” Coyote told me. “Occasionally I get away with it.” He added, “What I’m able to do is thread the listener through sentences with lots of subordinate clauses.”) There are no other visuals, so most of the time the screen is black. I saw a script that Burns had marked during a blind-assembly screening of the first episode of “Country Music.” He had crossed out two-thirds of the early clips, and he had written notes about what remained: “Nice but later”; “Where’s this coming from?”
His anticipation of an audience’s likely boredom, disquiet, or satisfaction is unusually visceral. He recently referred to a sequence, in “The Vietnam War,” in which the testimony of Bill Zimmerman, an anti-war activist, is set against that of an Army veteran, who describes his dismay at seeing American protesters carrying North Vietnamese flags. “What you’ve done is allow someone who tensed up listening to Zimmerman to exhale,” Burns explained. “And someone who has exhaled with Zimmerman to say, ‘Of course, there’s another truth.’ ”
“The Vietnam War” feels like a departure from Burns’s previous work. It has animated three-dimensional maps and foreign-language interviews. There’s rock music, as well as a score commissioned from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; Erik Ewers, a longtime editor at Florentine, who has worked on dozens of hours of film chivvied along by ragtime and bluegrass, told me, with feeling, that the opportunity to use “Dazed and Confused,” by Led Zeppelin, was “a dream come true.” The film includes striking sequences in which well-known black-and-white photographs, always central to Burns’s work, coëxist with color film and color photography. The subject, being recent and contested—and its traumas sometimes evident in the stiffness around the mouths of witnesses—has its own narrative potency. The war is not a room in the House of Americana; the film’s ambition is not to breathe life into the dead. There’s little call for the narrator of the series, or its interviewees, to talk of its subject as a representation of America. (From “The Shakers”: “They are, in many ways, the American dream.” “Baseball”: “It’ll do for a figure for the American system.” “Thomas Hart Benton”: “He knew where America was and he knew what America was.” “Jazz”: “Jazz music objectifies America.”)
Still, when the narration begins, its liturgical phrasing, and its reach for a negotiated settlement among viewers, will seem familiar. “America’s involvement in Vietnam began in secrecy,” Coyote announces, in voice-over. “It ended, thirty years later, in failure, witnessed by the entire world.” (An internal debate about whether “failure” should be “defeat” lasted for months, Burns told me.) “It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation,” Coyote continues. “And it was prolonged because it seemed easier to muddle through than admit that it had been caused by tragic decisions, made by five American Presidents, belonging to both political parties.”
Burns, who is a Democrat, said that he’d become friendly with Ben Sasse, the Republican senator from Nebraska, joking that they’d developed a “bromance.” In a recent interview with Tyler Cowen, Sasse praised Burns, saying, “One of the things that he’s trying to do is give us a common canon. He’s trying to give us some shared experiences.” In a 2003 article, in the journal Rethinking History, David Harlan, a historian and the author of the “The Degradation of American History,” described Burns’s major films as “dramas of integration,” referring not only to the centrality of race in his work—“Baseball” pivots around Jackie Robinson—but to Burns’s overarching commitment to the idea of a shared American culture, one whose values and ideals “can be found not in European intellectual traditions but in American social practices, in the myriad things Americans actually do together.” A Burns documentary seems to have the ambition of becoming the kind of binding American experience—the anthem at a ballgame—that interests Burns as a filmmaker.
But the promotion of a national canon requires, first, the suggestion that the culture is struggling without it—that there are no other teachers left. In one of our conversations, Burns described George Washington as a quite forgotten man. “If George Washington can be lost, then anybody can be lost,” he said. He recently told an audience at the National Press Club that Vietnam is “a war we have consciously ignored.” This viewpoint seems to overlook decades of popular fiction and nonfiction, including a multipart documentary series in the eighties, on PBS.
Burns’s devotion to the United States as a subject also requires the removal of foreign distractions. So a viewer of “Brooklyn Bridge,” Burns’s first professional film, from 1981, would be forgiven for thinking, wrongly, that it described the world’s first suspension bridge. The first episode of “Baseball” barely mentions overseas precursors of the sport.
Burns also needs to expel intractability. In the first episode of “The Civil War,” Foote, using words that some viewers found hard to take, described the Civil War as the result of a kind of misunderstanding. “We failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,” he said. “Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it. And it failed.”
Foote’s voice is one of many—throughout the series, Barbara J. Fields, the Columbia historian, discussed the war as one part of an unfinished struggle for African-American equality—but he is central to the series, and Burns often quotes his commentary. I asked him about President Donald Trump’s reference to the Civil War, in a radio interview this spring. After speaking admiringly of Andrew Jackson, Trump said, “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump’s remarks were widely criticized as fatuous. Alexandra Petri’s comic response, in the Washington Post, was in the form of a letter from Sullivan Ballou: “Ah! But yet my heart fondly wishes that Andrew Jackson could have done a deal.”
Burns and I were speaking before white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, and before Trump expressed his chagrin about “the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments” commemorating Confederate figures. Burns, who has sharply criticized Trump in public, calling him “an infantile, bullying man,” said that he actually agreed with the President on the question of compromise and the Civil War. “I think he got excoriated for the wrong reason,” he told me. “Yes, this is our genius, and we didn’t do it.” The Senate had just voted on repeal of the Affordable Care Act. When Senator McCain cast the decisive vote against repeal, Burns e-mailed three words—“Profile in courage”—to his friend Mark Salter, who is McCain’s long-time adviser and former speechwriter. Given current political conditions—and the history of Republican implacability about Obamacare—it was curious to hear Burns say, the next day, that in American politics “the problem now is lack of compromise.”
In Los Angeles, Burns and Novick went to an appointment while McPeak stayed at the restaurant with me. He explained that, last year, when “The Vietnam War” was finished, the consultant group disbanded; he, Salter, and Thomas Vallely, a former marine and a director of the Vietnam program at the Harvard Kennedy School, stayed on, as a kind of rebuttal unit.
“What we’re trying to do is bullet-proof this thing,” McPeak said. “Ken relies on public funding, in large measure, so it would not be good to go out with something that creates a huge backlash.” (In fact, less than a quarter of Burns’s funding derives from government sources; the rest comes from corporations, foundations, and individual donors.) “It’s not that we’re trying to pull our punches,” McPeak said, but there was, he observed, more than one way to describe a thing accurately. “I tell my wife the truth, but I don’t want to be an extremist about it.” He laughed. “There are ways to say things that cool the temperature in the room, and there are ways that increase it.” When “The Vietnam War” is broadcast, he said, “the attack that will get the most attention will come from the Flat Earth Society—people saying, ‘We woulda coulda shoulda won, and what happened is that Walter Cronkite turned against it.’ ”
Burns had his sixty-fourth birthday while he was in Los Angeles. That morning, at breakfast, he remarked that his younger brother, Ric, who is also a filmmaker, had just sent him an e-mail referring to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Ken said that, when writing a reply, he had begun to quote—“When I get older, losing my hair”—and then paused. “It’s a sore point, because Ric’s got this gigantic Friar Tuck bald spot, and I haven’t. I deleted it and said, ‘Thank you, love you, too.’ ”
He observed that “Kenny,” as his brother used to call him, had only ever been used by family members and strangers—“by assholes, saying, ‘Hey, Kenny, how you doing?’ ” Burns then quoted a photo caption once published in National Geographic: “Kenny Burns takes lunch from mother’s hand.” In the April, 1959, issue, a black-and-white photo shows a smiling woman, in a plaid shirt, facing an infant propped on a wooden chair, as sunlight falls on his hair. The accompanying article, written by Burns’s father, Robert, and illustrated with his photographs, describes a stay of many months, a few years earlier, in the French Alpine village of Saint-Véran. Robert Burns was then a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Columbia, and the visit was fieldwork.
“The village at that time had one foot in the twentieth century and one in the Middle Ages,” Burns had told me. “People brought their cows into their farm kitchens for the winter—warmth for them as well as the cows.” Burns had his first birthday in France, and Ric was born after they returned, so Saint-Véran existed for the boys only as family myth. Their father sometimes baked the kind of bread he’d eaten there. “He said that you needed a saw to cut through it in the middle of the winter, but then if you dunked it in coffee or milk or wine it would release itself. He would re-create it. I don’t think it was very good, but we loved it because he made it, and it was from this Brigadoon that we had never been to.”
Burns didn’t mean to suggest that France had made his father happy. “I don’t know if ‘happiness’ was even a word that could have been a part of my father’s lexicon,” he said. Robert Burns never finished his dissertation, and never advanced beyond an assistant professorship, first at the University of Delaware, then at the University of Michigan. “That hung over us like a miasmic smog,” Burns said. “He had received some negative feedback from his thesis adviser. After four or five chapters, he never wrote another word.” Professionally, “that doomed him, plus my mother’s sickness.”
His mother, Lyla, was given a diagnosis of cancer soon after the family returned from France. She died in 1965, when Ken was eleven. He said that someone shown a sequence of Christmas-card photos of him and his brother, taken by his father, would not guess at the “madness and sadness” that overtook the family. Ric Burns described the circumstances more directly. The boys grew up with “a dying mother and a mentally ill father,” he told me. Their father likely suffered from bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders, and was “caught in endless loops of self-defense and self-exoneration.” Although Robert Burns was not violent, he was often enraged. In 1958, he had a breakdown and spent four months in a mental institution; the boys were taken to visit him, but were not told where they were. After their mother’s death, Ric said, “we were running the show—we were more parents than my father.” When Ric was in tenth grade, and Ken in eleventh, their father took a research trip to Morocco and the French Alps for several months. He left a checkbook; Ken paid the bills. This upbringing created unusual freedoms, Ric said, but was still a “Bergmanesque, dark thing, which Ken is determined to save himself from, and determined, in some sense, to save the world from, too.”
Ken Burns sees a connection between his father’s distress and his own productivity. He meets deadlines and keeps to budgets. There are only a few examples of failed ideas, and in these cases Burns was not at fault. A biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., was defeated, Burns said, by the King family: “They wrote me a letter saying, ‘We think you are the person to do the biography,’ and I said, ‘You are right.’ And I went to visit them in Atlanta, and I realized they weren’t going to let go.” He added, “This was a husband and a father they could not control in life, and so desperately tried to control in death.”
When Ken started making films, in the late seventies, Ric sometimes helped. In the mid-eighties, Ken began work on “The Civil War.” Ric was then a graduate student at Columbia. In Ken’s telling, Ric, like his father, “couldn’t figure out the gear that got you out of neutral. So I asked him to come on and work with me.” (Ric doesn’t quite see himself in this description, but he was grateful to have been shown a path out of the academy.) Ken said, “He came on as an assistant, and then as a co-producer, and just did unbelievable stuff.” (Ric said that he was never an assistant.) Their working relationship seems to have been mutually rewarding, if combative. Ric said, “I think Ken has often felt that there’s an abyss right behind him, and that if he doesn’t fight hard enough he’ll get sucked back into it.” His brother could be willful: “Ken rules his world with an iron fist.”
They did not work together again. Ric had the impression, from Ken, “that the only way it would be O.K. if I continued to work as a filmmaker was if I worked for him, and I had a different point of view about that.” Ric went on to make admired documentaries of his own, including “New York,” in 1999.
Ken Burns’s film series about the Second World War, which aired a decade ago, was called “The War.” When the title first appears, it’s superimposed on an uncaptioned 1945 photo of Robert Burns, then a recently commissioned second lieutenant, smiling. Burns described a trip that his father made to the French Alps in the late seventies. “He was going to put together a little film, and I was going to help him,” he said. He took a 16-mm. camera, and shot landscapes, keeping the camera still. “The compositions were impeccable,” Burns said, but the shots were too short. “He ran the camera for four to five seconds, whereas we count off in our head to at least fifteen.” He explained to his father, delicately, that there was a way to stretch the shots, by printing each frame twice. “But, basically, it was the same as when his thesis adviser had talked to him. That there could be anything wrong! He just said, ‘That’s it, I don’t want to do it.’ ”
Burns added, “He was a great carpenter. At one point, where he was really flailing, in the seventies, I said, ‘Why don’t you become a carpenter? You’re so good at it.’ He thought that was insulting, which, of course, it was, in a way.”
On a morning in late June, Burns was sitting with colleagues in a screening room in the West Village. He had a legal pad on his lap, and was preparing to see, for the first time, a restored version of “Brooklyn Bridge,” which he made not long after leaving Hampshire College, in 1975. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1982.
Burns has sometimes suggested that his subject was daringly dull. “Every time I’d say, ‘I want to do an hour on, you know, a bridge,’ people would say, ‘You’re crazy!’ ” he told me. This may underplay the success of “The Great Bridge,”David McCullough’s 1972 book, which was Burns’s inspiration. (McCullough became a script consultant on the film, and also its narrator.) But it’s true that, in the late seventies, it was not every young filmmaker’s dream to craft an hour of narrative history, for television. Burns’s choices were unfashionable. “Totally,” he said. “And that was O.K.” He later added, “I had rejected cinéma vérité. I just found it a little bit too precious that you would limit yourself to no narration, no music, and pretend that you were getting, in a Godardian sense, truth twenty-four times a second.” At Hampshire, he’d been taught by Jerome Liebling, the photographer and filmmaker. Burns recalled asking him an overwrought question about auteur theory; Liebling’s response had been to “take me by the elbow, put me out of his office, and shut the door.” Burns went on, “If I hadn’t met Jerry, I’d be teaching film theory at some third-rate college, and bitter.”
In Burns’s view, conventional narrative—“and then and then and then”—is “about as good a thing as has ever been invented.” He contends that the catastrophe of the Second World War caused academic historians to lose confidence in narrative, and to be drawn instead to Freud and Marx and to “semiotics and symbolism and deconstruction and postmodernism and queer studies and African-American studies and feminism.” A challenge to “top-down, great men” history was welcome, Burns said, but these alternatives “were like blind men describing one part of the elephant, very accurately.” From the start, he said, he “was intuitively practicing something that included all of that.”
Stephen Ambrose, the popular historian, is said to have remarked that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source.” (PBS and Florentine Films often use the line as a promotional blurb.) After the success of “The Civil War,” some academic historians praised Burns, but others lamented his popular reach, and accused him of sappiness and nostalgia. In a collection of essays by historians about “The Civil War,” Leon Litwack noted how the last episode jumps ahead to the gatherings of Union and Confederate veterans, at Gettysburg, in 1913 and 1938: the effect is “to underscore and celebrate national reunification and the birth of the modern American nation, while ignoring the brutality, violence, and racial repression on which that reconciliation rested.” Eric Foner, similarly, wrote that “Burns privileges a merely national concern over the great human drama of emancipation.”
Burns, in a 1994 interview, said that the academy had “done a terrific job in the last hundred years of murdering our history.” He told me that criticism of his work was at times “gratuitous and petty,” or powered by jealousy.
He recalled two documentaries that had inspired him. One, a portrait of Gertrude Stein, by Perry Miller Adato, from 1970, used actors, reading quotations, alongside a narrator. The other was “City of Gold,” a Canadian short from 1957: the camera moved across archival photographs of the Klondike gold rush of the eighteen-nineties, and transitioned, almost imperceptibly, to near-motionless contemporary footage. On his first viewing, Burns said to himself, “Oh, I know where to go with that.” He spent much of his twenties and thirties in photography archives, with a camera pointed at photos attached, with magnets, to an easel. (He could pan and tilt, but zooms were too unsteady. These had to be done by a specialist, expensively, at an animation table, frame by frame.) Burns wasn’t alone in treating photographs this way—one thinks of the opening titles for “Cheers”—but the technique came to be associated with his work, and was later named for him. In 2002, Steve Jobs invited Burns to visit Apple, and demonstrated a new iMovie feature that engineers were calling the Ken Burns Effect. Jobs asked if Apple could keep the name, and Burns agreed, as long as the company supplied equipment to some nonprofit groups and to his own office. The two men became friends. Burns often stayed with Jobs in Palo Alto; Jobs’s daughter interned at Florentine.
In the West Village screening room, Burns told his colleagues that at his first audience Q. & A., in 1981, a woman asked him where he’d found footage of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction. “I said, ‘Well, Ma’am, it was built between 1869 and 1883, there were no motion pictures.’ She said, ‘No, no, I’m talking when the scows brought the blocks of stone to the bridge, and they were being hoisted up.’ And I said, ‘Those were all still photographs.’ And she said, ‘No, they weren’t.’ ” He laughed. “And I said to myself, ‘Shut up, you won.’ ”
The film is in two halves. A history of the bridge’s construction is followed by a meditation on its place in American culture. When the screening ended, Burns said, “God, I knew every single thing by heart. Every word.”
He thanked the technicians in the room: “You guys, it is so gorgeous, so unbelievable.” Among other fixes, the restoration had adjusted color and removed the vertical “bounce” that affects most old reels of film. Daniel J. White, the editor in charge of the process, observed to Burns that bounce can give film “a nice, organic look, and a lot of older people appreciate that. But, any time I talk to a twenty-year-old, they’re like, ‘Why is it doing that? What is that?’ ” He was flapping his hand in the air.
Burns was struck by how the film seemed divided into scenes by captions and by fades to black. “It doesn’t really matter—because the impulse is kind of pure—but captions like ‘Leaving Cincinnati’ and ‘Early Bridges’?” He was laughing. “Right? I would never do ‘Early Bridges’ now.”
He then asked about the color tint in his interview with Arthur Miller, who, in the film’s final spoken words, says of the bridge, “It makes you feel that maybe you, too, could add something that would last and be beautiful.”
Unusually, Burns had shot the interview outdoors. “I remember that day as warmer,” he said. “So could we bring him down just a few points and make it a bit—orange?”
“You got it,” White said.
Burns asked to rewatch the shot that follows Miller: the bridge, as seen from the Brooklyn side, against an evening sky that’s dark and threatening, except for a bright band above the horizon. (An image of a cannon against a similar, if less boastfully spectacular, sunset became a leitmotif in “The Civil War.”) “I just want to say, it’s all in that shot,” Burns said. Seeing its color restored, he said, “I almost started to cry.” He recalled a day in the spring of 1979, when he happened to be driving from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Noticing the sky, he stopped in Dumbo and scrambled to shoot. “The sun was going down and everything was gray and silver in the clouds,” he said. “It was the kind of thing where everybody stopped. Didn’t matter who you were. There was an ultimate self-remembering that went on, a pause, the way you do when you stand in front of the Grand Canyon. That was Roll 53—the grail we’ve been tilting toward ever since.”
In Sunapee, Burns apologized for the size of his S.U.V., a Denali, before driving to a neighboring town to buy dog food. In the car, he said that he first stopped drinking in 1988, while making “The Civil War.” He didn’t have an uncontrolled, “jittery” problem, he explained, but “if there’s a box of cookies I eat the cookies.” He described his subsequent drinking as if reading from a curriculum vitae: “In the mid-nineties, I think it was white wine, and then I gave that up. And then I did red wine, and then I stopped that for a while, and somewhere in the mid-aughts I started with prosecco, and I did prosecco for seven or eight years.” He had a rationale for the prosecco: it seemed more egalitarian than champagne, and less likely to cause hangovers. “But then I realized I just liked prosecco, so I stopped that, four years ago.” He added, “I’ve been thinking maybe it’s time to go back and do something again.”
He referred to his first divorce, in 1993. “That really hurt, that took a long time for me to heal, and I spent a decade focussing on the girls—and having fun, out in the world, and dating—but it really took a full decade to escape the pain of it.” He went on, “I have a kind of vigilance that works very, very well with filmmaking and parenting. And vigilance isn’t necessarily the ingredient of a relationship.” He added, “You actually have to have some trust.”
On my way to Sunapee, I’d stopped at Walpole, to visit Burns’s office, and to see, in Burns’s orchard, a replica of the garden pavilion at Monticello. I’d eaten lunch with Dayton Duncan, the script writer and producer, in a local restaurant that Burns partly owns. We then walked across town, past a war memorial unusual for the ample space left for the dead of future wars, and arrived at the white, Gothic Revival house where Burns’s films are edited. Duncan showed me a few unfinished scenes—narrated by Burns—from a middle episode of “Country Music.” Elvis Costello and Jack White talked, with charm, about Loretta Lynn. A little later, there was an interview with Charley Pride.
Burns, as narrator, explained that Pride grew up “in a shotgun shack in the Mississippi Delta.” Onscreen, there was a photo of a house. It’s a common experience, when you watch Burns’s films, to become aware of your own quiet querying, even as the storytelling machine rolls forward: Did we just see the thing being mentioned—the hill in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, the country singer’s home—or not? In this case, not. As Duncan explained, no picture of Pride’s childhood home is known to exist, so a stand-in was found. (A few weeks later, a new stand-in image, by Dorothea Lange, took its place.)
It’s hard to think of this license as deception, but it’s not an inevitable part of documentary filmmaking. Burns told me that he expects his audience to “surrender to narrative.” But his vigilance—his investment in his viewers’ relationship with his material—can sometimes feel like micromanagement. A camera pan that essentially gives instructions on how to look at a photo can be revelatory, or feel like a nudge in the ribs. With repetition, a musical idea can start to grate. In Burns’s films, one rarely sees a wide American landscape without hearing the screech of a red-tailed hawk. (“The Simpsons” follows the same rule.) The opening clip of “The Vietnam War” shows a marine, lying in mud, raising a helmet on the end of his rifle, to check for snipers. On the soundtrack, there’s then the ping of a ricocheting bullet. Burns added the ping, and said that the film shows no evidence of a bullet hitting the helmet. Ric Burns, connecting his brother’s upbringing to the narrative “choke hold” that he has sometimes felt in Ken’s work, said, “Part of the reason some things get made is because one’s grip is so strong. It’s very difficult to let go.”
When I saw Burns in Sunapee, he argued that fastidiousness about photographic authenticity would restrict his ability to tell stories of people cut off from cameras by poverty or geography. He then explained what, at Florentine Films, is known as Broyles’s Law. In the mid-eighties, Burns was working on a deft, entertaining documentary about Huey Long, the populist Louisiana politician. He asked two historians, William Leuchtenburg and Alan Brinkley, about a photograph he hoped to use, as a part of the account of Long’s assassination; it showed him protected by a phalanx of state troopers. Brinkley told him that the image might mislead; Long usually had plainclothes bodyguards. Burns felt thwarted. Then Leuchtenburg spoke. He’d just watched a football game in which Frank Broyles, the former University of Arkansas coach, was a commentator. When the game paused to allow a hurt player to be examined, Broyles explained that coaches tend to gauge the seriousness of an injury by asking a player his name or the time of day; if he can’t answer correctly, it’s serious. As Burns recalled it, Broyles went on, “But, of course, if the player is important to the game, we tell him what his name is, we tell him what time it is, and we send him back in.”
Broyles’s Law, then, is: “If it’s super-important, if it’s working, you tell him what his name is, and you send him back into the game.” The photograph of Long and the troopers stayed in the film.
Was this, perhaps, a terrible law? Burns laughed. “It’s a terrible law!” But, he went on, it didn’t let him off the hook, ethically. “This would be Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’—‘I can do anything I want. I’ll pay the town drunk to crawl across the ice in the Russian village.’ ” He was referring to scenes in Herzog’s “Bells from the Deep,” which Herzog has been happy to describe, and defend, as stage-managed. “If he chooses to do that, that’s O.K. And then there are other people who’d rather do reënactments than have a photograph that’s vague.” Instead, Burns said, “We do enough research that we can pretty much convince ourselves—in the best sense of the word—that we’ve done the honorable job.”
I later spoke to Herzog, who is a friend of Burns’s. Talking of “The Vietnam War,” he said, “I binge-watched it. I would feel itching: ‘Let’s continue.’ ” When he was through, he called Burns. “I just said, ‘This is very big.’ ” The film had flaws, he told me, “but it doesn’t matter.” The project was at once sweeping and serious. Herzog said, “Let’s focus on the big boulder of rock that landed in the meadow and nobody knows how it materialized.”
In Sunapee, Burns and I took his boat onto the lake with Olivia, his twelve-year-old. We circled around an island. After half an hour, returning at some speed, Burns said, “I’m having trouble with the brake!” Olivia screamed, then stopped screaming long enough to explain—“He does this every time, it doesn’t get old”—and then screamed some more. The boat accelerated toward the dock, where their dog stood, barking. “I’m sorry, sweetie!” Burns shouted over the engine. “I love you!”
We went out for ice cream, at the harbor, and Burns told his daughters that, “in the Civil War, when people had been in combat—you know what that means?—they said they’d ‘seen the elephant.’ I guess it’s just the most exotic thing they could think of.” He noticed Olivia’s bruised knees, and described them in Burnsian terms: “You’d expect to tilt up and see a tough boy.”
As we drove back, with the sun low, there was a family joke or two about Trump. Then Olivia mentioned that she’d met Barack Obama half a dozen times. Burns is friendly with the former President, and has hopes of making at least one documentary about him. This idea has been discussed with, but not yet blessed by, its subject.
“He sent me a video when I couldn’t make it, remember?” Olivia said. Burns pulled over, so that he could find it on his phone. In the spring of 2014, Burns and his wife were invited, along with a few other couples, to an informal dinner at the White House. “We had drinks out on the porch, and we went out to the garden that Michelle was growing,” he recalled. “Then we came in and ate.” A video clip from that night—an artifact from a now distant era—shows the President in the private residence, in a plaid shirt, looking into Burns’s phone camera. “Olivia, I miss you!” Obama says. “I wish you were here tonight. But, since you aren’t, this is the best I can do, to send you a message. I hope you’re doing good. I hope school is fun.” Burns drove on. “We got there at six, we left at two. He didn’t want us to leave. He wanted to dance more.”
Earlier, Burns had said of the Obama project, “I am a bull at a rodeo, snorting to get out and do this. I would love to sit down with him and do fifteen or twenty two-hour sessions. And make a film, in a couple of years, that would be in his own words. It would just be him. And then, in ten years, we’d add all the other things. So we could get at least fifteen years away from Obama’s Presidency and triangulate.” He went on, “Hopefully, we’d have then left behind the specific gravity of journalism, and near-history, and passed to a place where we can just do it.” ♦