The Ken Burns Effect

Saving America, one movie at a time

“I realized that I was becoming not just a documentary filmmaker but a documentary filmmaker focusing on American History for Public Television. I knew how precarious that was, that I was taking in essence a vow of both anonymity and poverty, and I thought this was a place I could continue to practice my craft and live as I wanted to live.”

This was how documentary filmmaker Ken Burns decided to move to Walpole, N.H. Thirty-one years later, having avoided both anonymity and poverty, Burns has become a household name, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and director of some of the most celebrated American history documentary films ever made. He often works together with creative partner and writer Dayton Duncan. Duncan, coming from the world of professional politics, has written many of Burns’ iconic films, most recently winning an Emmy for his writing of “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”  

The two certainly don’t work alone. Their production company, Florentine Films, works out of an old New England-style house that you would drive by and never give a second thought. You’d never guess that, inside, the living room is full of computers, an upstairs closet has become a sound recording studio or that a room that in iterations past might have been a child’s bedroom now holds editing suites. And the house is alive with some of the most talented researchers and writers, editors and sound mixers from all around the country, a creative community in the most incongruous setting.

That’s how they, in an ordinary-looking house, in the corner of the town common, in a town that feels far away from everywhere, make films that help shape the consciousness of the nation.

In 1997 Burns and Duncan released their story of the expedition of Lewis and Clark. It told of the two explorers who set out with a small team to map the undiscovered wilds of the American frontier and bring back information that would help shape how we developed as a nation. 

Burns talks about the repetitions of history, and it’s hard not to draw parallels between Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery and Burns and Duncan and their team at Florentine Films in Walpole.

Duncan says that around the release of the film he liked to tell people that Lewis and Clark was “the story of the friendship and partnership of two men, one who was the steadier hand and was four years older and kept things on an even keel, and the other who was four years younger who was the brilliant, more artistic one. And then let people draw their own conclusions of who I was talking about. I’m four years older, by the way.”

The surface parallels are interesting, if obvious, but maybe the comparison doesn’t end there. Much like the explorers, Burns and Duncan have devoted themselves to discovering America and sharing what they have learned. The two have also partnered on “The National Parks,” “Mark Twain,” “Horatio’s Drive” as well as working together to create “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz.” 

Just as Lewis and Clark’s journey revealed our nation to itself, the films look back on our national history with an honest mirror, not shying away from a complex narrative.

Describing this complexity, Burns says, “We are just trying to tell our story, not trying to whitewash it or sanitize it in some Madison Avenue view of history.  We’ve taken some of the darkest and most complicated moments and shown that, and we’ve taken some of the most celebrated people like Thomas Jefferson and also held his feet to the fire for obvious failings and shortcomings. But at the same time the ultimate thing, the thing that I’m interested in, is expressing an essential faith in the human spirit and particularly the unique role this remarkable Republic seems to play in the positive progress of mankind.” 

The filmmakers assert that those nuanced readings of history give us a better insight into who we have been, who we are today and perhaps, as Duncan says, “by getting to know your history hopefully you can steer a course to a better future.”

It’s hard not to be self-referential when watching the films of Burns and Duncan; it’s hard to avoid drawing modern-day analogies. The filmmakers agree that there are themes that seem to repeat in American history, or as Duncan puts it, “Human nature is human nature, capable of atrocious evil and transcendent grace.” 

When pressed for what lessons should be taken from their films, both filmmakers are quick to point out that neither film topics nor content are either politically or didactically motivated. Burns explains, “I make these films to educate myself. These are not expressions of me telling you what you should know. That, I believe, is called homework.”

Instead, they focus on telling a good story well. That is to say a story that is significant to the progress of American history, told in a way that doesn’t shy from the truth. They argue that a history that tells the nuanced truth is a more useful history, teaching us that the heroes from our nation’s past were no less human that we are. Their humanity is a gift. It affords us the opportunity to be equally heroic.

If Jefferson hadn’t been personally flawed and if Meriwether Lewis hadn’t struggled with mental illness, what chance would any us have to achieve great things? As Duncan says, “What I take from that is that I am living history, that I am part of history now. What I get from the historical figures of the past is that they were that way, too. They shouldn’t be up on pedestals; they were human. They made mistakes. They did the best they could, and the ones that we recognize and honor are the ones that push us toward, in my view, that ideal imbedded in the Declaration of Independence. They pushed us a little further, they struggled and did their best. And that is all we can do.”

These complicated narratives, this warts-and-all look back on our national past, while seemingly harder to digest in fact brings us closer together. Complex histories are paradoxically more unifying. As Burns says, “The more complicated things are, the more nuanced they are, the more we are brought together because we share the same flaws internally as we do as a larger group externally, socially … by bringing complexity in we humanize ourselves and the other. And if dehumanization sells, that runs contrary to our best instincts.”

But Burns fears that our current media culture has ignored the value of complexity, preferring the appealing lure of certainty, even when that certainty is at odds with the truth. He says, “We have simplified our stories into black-and-white morality tales, which are, in fact, just tales, fabrications.” In effect, by oversimplifying complex issues, the media contributes to a process of grouping people into constituencies and sowing fear and division.

“Almost everything in our media culture is designed to point out how different we are. How much the other person is just that, other. We are dialectically preoccupied with emphasizing our differences — red state, blue state; North, South; East, West; male, female; black, white; young, old — that we forget to select for some wisdom that sees the obvious, to me, truth that we share so much in common.”

This impulse for division constitutes the antithesis of Burns’ and Duncan’s professional goals. Burns thinks it unfortunately has a powerful pull, because of its sensationalism and opiating effects it makes for easy consumption: “What we have is a media culture in which division sells, otherwise Rush Limbaugh would be bankrupt.”

And too often the desire to tell the simple story for the sake of ratings, to reduce truth to soundbites, interferes with viewers’ ability to know what has actually occurred in our collective national history. And without a clear and honest understanding of the events that have preceded, it’s difficult to make choices that will bring us together as a people.

This obfuscation frustrates Burns: “The problem with CNN is that they’ve now in their desperate, almost pathetically desperate, attempt to be balanced, give voice, I mean legitimate equal voice, to the worst.” Some extreme views, suggests Burns, don’t merit a counterpoint. For example, he notes, “…it’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that global warming is happening and that our president is an American citizen. Period. And those who continue to do that should be marginalized and made to feel ashamed.”

So has our national discourse traveled too far down the roads of division? “I am very hopeful, but I am also fearful that I have seen history repeat itself, not just here in the United States,” he says. Just as electronic communication becomes ubiquitous, the world is increasingly subject to disinformation, says Burns, who is troubled by the “Orwellian double-speak that is the hallmark of many people today in the United States.”

But the films that Duncan and Burns have produced seem to tell us it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe the lessons to be learned are that we as a nation have a complicated, flawed but ultimately noble past. Maybe the lesson is that we share more than divides us, and we could be, as Burns hopes, “singing our anthems together and not apart.” 

And hopefully, through their body of work, Burns and Duncan can teach us not to fear complexity and ignite an interest in learning more about what we have really been through as a nation. The way forward, according to Burns, is to find moments of mutual interest and build from a common foundation.

“All of us share this same story. And if you find out that everyone in the country loves Abraham Lincoln, from the most right-wing person to the most left-wing person, then that’s a place to begin. If you find out that Keith Olbermann and George Will are singing the same rhapsodic phrases about baseball, then that’s a place to begin.”

And Duncan says that the thing about America is that we are always in the midst of this experiment, and that just as Lewis and Clark didn’t know what was around the next bend in the river or over the next mountain, we don’t know what the future brings for us as a nation. 

But maybe using Burns’ and Duncan’s work as our guide we can discover that we are not as divided as our media would like us to believe, that more important than punditry and divisive politics is our shared national past. Maybe the real lesson is that history is not just a story and it is certainly not an abstraction, but rather the real actions of real people, not too different from ourselves.

Duncan sums up that hopeful sentiment: “If only perfect people can be heroes, then there can be no heroes. But if imperfect people are capable of great things and heroic actions, it means that I’m perhaps capable of doing something of significance, as imperfect as I am.”

And they both certainly have. Much like Lewis and Clark, Burns and Duncan have given the American people a new understanding of exactly what it means to be American. They may not be crossing mountains and fording rivers, but they are mapping the American historical landscape and discovering our dizzying heights and darkest valleys.

And the words that Thomas Jefferson said of the monumental task of Lewis and Clark would fit equally well with the work of these two filmmakers: “The work we are now doing is, I trust, done for posterity in such a way that they need not repeat it. We shall delineate with correctness the great arteries of this country, those who come after us will fill up the canvas we begin.”

Categories: Features