Perhaps no one has been able to bring American history alive in the way that documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has over the past several decades, with blockbusters such as The Civil War, Baseball, and The Dust Bowl.
In it, Burns blends historic Gettysburg footage with coverage of students from the Greenwood School in Vermont, capturing the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and of learning-challenged boys as they attempt to memorize what many consider to be the most notable words ever uttered.
I recently spoke on the phone with Burns, who was in New Hampshire. We talked about his inspiration for the film and how it came together. And about his challenge to the nation.
How would you describe your new documentary, The Address?
The Address is in many ways a departure for me. It's a different style of film, called cinema verité, that relies on observing moments rather than commenting on them. It's the story of a tiny boarding school in Vermont for boys with learning differences, called the Greenwood School, that each year after Thanksgiving vacation challenges the boys not only to memorize the Gettysburg Address but to publicly recite it. Now we're challenging the entire country to memorize it—but for these kids who are at the school sometimes as a last resort because they've been bullied or marginalized at other schools, this is a minefield of difficulty.
I was so moved ten years ago being a judge at one of their annual public recitations that I decided to make a film about it. Lincoln's speech is so transformative, about a new birth of freedom. That's what happens to these boys: They internalize this address, and they grow from it. This hour-and-a-half film celebrates not only the spectacular use of language in Lincoln's two-minute speech but also the extraordinary courage and dedication of these young boys.
Why do you believe the film will be of interest to Americans of all ages?
In America, words matter, and I think that in some cases words are medicine. On the first anniversary of 9/11, besides the desperately sad list of the names of the dead that was read, there were no contemporary speeches—only a couple of speeches, one of which was the Gettysburg Address. Now that had nothing to do with 9/11, but it had everything to do with healing from 9/11.
So I think we're drawn to the Civil War, which is the most important event in American history. We're all drawn to Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest president, and we're drawn to this magical speech that seemed to be, essentially, Lincoln doubling down on the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson had written, "All men are created equal," but because he owned other human beings, we had to fight a civil war to make that a reality. And Lincoln was saying, Look, we really do believe in it!
So to use a metaphor of our computer age, our Internet age, this is the Declaration of Independence 2.0, and it's the operating system we're still working with, and that's gotta be of interest to anybody who calls themselves an American or anybody who's curious about Americans.
I also think it's interesting to get our history in different forms. You don't always have to crack a textbook and learn about a dry data fact or event. What if you watch these little boys studying the speech, and internalizing it, and all of sudden you feel like, Oh wow! I want to memorize it. I get it. It's more than just the sum total of its sentences.
Having chronicled the students' learning journey from November through their trip to Gettysburg in May, there was a metamorphosis as they memorized and publicly recited the address. The film captures their array of emotions. As a dad, did you find yourself being swept in as well?
Oh, completely—as a dad. That's why I did it. I'm the father of daughters, and all of a sudden it was like having 50 sons, each with different issues, each with different strengths. I think that's the important thing. When we look at these kids who have learning differences, we tend to sort of look away and say, Why can't they just be like everybody else? But in point of fact our country was conceived with the idea that we could tolerate difference, we can tolerate unusualness.
I find it really telling that a disproportionate number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are dyslexic. The strategies they've had to employ turn out to be not just helping them overcome a learning difference but gives them novel strategies to make decisions in the business world. What we wanted to say is that the boys' glasses were not half empty but half full and that we can celebrate their struggles and individualities because we all have struggles, and if they can do it, everyone else can.
It's very moving to witness, through your camera, how many different learning challenges these students have to face to accomplish their goal. It's also impressive to see how they bond during the process.
Some of these boys could memorize it instantaneously, but pronunciation or meaning was a difficulty. For others, the meaning was there, but they had a hard time memorizing it. What I found so moving is how they needed each other, and how they helped each other.
There's one scene in which one kid is stuck on the word "dedicate." The teacher can't get him through it, but then his classmate just gets him to learn it. This [film] is a valentine to the school and the faculty because of the amount of love they pour into these boys. You have to remember this is a boarding school. These are parents who are sending their kids, sometimes at age 10 or 11, far away across the country to go to this place of last resort. The staff and the faculty envelop them with a kind of love and patience that's so instructive to the rest of us.
And then when you see the kids themselves learning that lesson of love and patience and tolerance and help, it just makes you feel better. It's the new birth of freedom that Lincoln was talking about.
The documentary also captures moments that are truly endearing and a few that are really quite funny as well. Is there one particular scene that stands out as a favorite of yours?
Yeah, and it may just be my bias, because I filmed it on my cell phone after one of the kids, Max, had recited his piece. We obviously had a couple cameras fixed on the podium and the recitation, and we also had another camera fixed on the parents' reaction as the student was reading, but as soon as that reading was done, the camera would move to the next parents' reaction.
Suddenly I saw Max coming back to his mom's and sister's table, and I fell to the ground and filmed him essentially melting into his mom's arms out of sheer accomplishment. An hour before, Max, who knew it by heart but who had this great fear of speaking in public, was absolutely certain he wasn't going to do it. It's one of the most moving things I've ever seen, and I cried as I filmed it, and I cry every time I see it.
The gala is the evening that each of the boys recites the Gettysburg Address in front of his family and friends?
Yes. It's usually around Lincoln's birthday, in mid-February. They do it in front of a couple of hundred people, and it's terrifying for them.
Abraham Lincoln seems to be one of your personal heroes. Why?
Oh absolutely. I think he's the greatest president. He kept our country together in its time of greatest crisis, the Civil War, the most important event in American history. He's this wonderful poet president who's given not only the Gettysburg Address but his First and Second Inaugural and his Annual Message to Congress in 1862. His life has a kind of tragedy to it. He is the epitome to me of what an American is. Whatever your political persuasion is, I don't know anybody who doesn't like Abraham Lincoln—the most conservative people and the most liberal people find inspiration in Abraham Lincoln.
How did you come up with the idea of challenging all Americans to memorize the Gettysburg Address?
We're always looking in public television for educational outreach opportunities, and it seemed pretty obvious that we would start off and challenge schoolkids to do it.
Then somebody said, Why not everybody? and I said, Yeah, why not? If these kids can do it, anybody can do it, right?
In this age of instantaneous feedback, memorization seems to be a lost art. Why do you think it's so important?
My dad, who passed away in 2001, knew about six hours of memorized stuff—poems and speeches and passages from Shakespeare. It was amazing to watch him, and I got some of that. But we don't have our kids memorize anything. I think it's a good training. It's a good discipline for the mind. You don't want to just rote memorize something if there's no meaning behind it, but how could you dedicate some time memorizing the Gettysburg Address without having its meaning seep in? These ten sentences are among the most beautiful ever written.
How many people have weighed in on your website in response to your challenge to the American public? Is there anybody that's a surprise to you?
Everybody! There's a 90-year-old, there are schoolkids, people from Utah and Hawaii, along with many celebrities and media and Hollywood directors: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Uma Thurman, Taylor Swift, and Usher, and athletic stars like Shane Victorino of the Boston Red Sox, and Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg all recited it. All encouraging people to memorize and recite it themselves. We've got Stephen Colbert. We've got all five presidents, who immediately recited it when I issued the challenge. There's Nancy Pelosi but also Marco Rubio. There's Bill O'Reilly but also Rachel Maddow.
Are there certain parameters or criteria you look for before choosing to work on a project?
No. When people ask, How do you choose your topics? I always say, They choose me. It's the quality of the story. The word "history" is mostly made up of the word "story," and I'm just drawn to good stories. I don't make films about subjects I know about. I make films about subjects I want to know about. And rather than telling you what you should know, I share with you our process of discovery. The former is called homework; the other is called a good story.
Do you have one piece of work, or an accomplishment, that makes you most proud?
I'm a father of four daughters, and I would not be a good father if I said that I favored one over the other[s]. I've done over 25 films, and I've been able to put the best of myself at that moment into each of those films. So like my children, I love them all the same.
After setting up this interview with you for National Geographic, we sent word out via social media inviting people to send in questions. Here are two:
"Do you think Abe was really as honest as the history books say he was?"—@METAKNIGHT
I believe he was. When they talk about "Honest Abe," I think this has become a kind of superficial thing. What he was was deeply truthful in the way he responded to situations, and that made him an extremely effective leader. It gave him a great sense of humor, a great sense of irony, and it permitted him to be the great commander in chief that he was.
"Ken, if you had an opportunity to sit and chat with Abraham Lincoln, what would you say to him?"
I wouldn't say anything. I'd shut up and listen.
To view the thousands of Americans who have taken the challenge or to tape yourself reciting the Gettysburg Address, visit www.learntheaddress.org.
For more information about this or other films by Ken Burns, visit www.florentinefilms.com.