Ken Burns is normally associated with documentary epics covering subjects as ambitious as the Civil War, World War II and the entire history of baseball. So it surely must have felt like something of a respite to play small ball for a while with “The Address,” profiling a school for teenage boys with learning disabilities in Vermont, and the children for whom memorizing and reciting the Gettysburg Address is a rite of passage. Despite its relative lack of heft, the project is reasonably effective in providing a window into these kids’ worlds, however narrow the aperture might be.
Narrated by the boys themselves in sometimes halting fashion, the 90-minute film uses mastering President Lincoln’s speech — a hallowed tradition at the Greenwood School — as a symbol of challenging and not giving up on children who the system has historically abandoned. Along the way, the project introduces a number of youths grappling with different issues, as well as the teachers/counselors patiently working to assist them.
Truth be told, the kids sort of blend together, forming a larger mosaic about children of whom little is expected, and a broader education system generally ill-equipped to deal with their unique needs.
Given the grand scope usually associated with Burns’ docus, he rather surprisingly affords relatively short shrift to the historical significance of the speech — which marked its 150th anniversary in November — or why it has become such a celebrated bit of oratory. PBS did sponsor a nifty outreach program built around the project that challenged people, from celebrities to school kids, to memorize Lincoln’s famous words.
Burns is a gifted filmmaker, and like most of his work, “The Address” is refreshingly free of histrionics. More than anything, though, it feels like one of those human-interest pieces used to close a nightly newscast, blown up and out (perhaps a little too much) in a manner that provides the story additional room to breathe.
It’s been announced that Burns has a number of more ambitious multipart projects in the pipeline, which will surely keep him and PBS busy for the next several years. So while “The Address” is laudable, based on how loudly Burns’ voice echoes across the network, this one-off amounts to little more than an understated bit of throat-clearing before the next event.