Ken Burns is scared about the future of America.
“I’m very anxious,” Burns admits. “I want my country to survive. I want to look back on all of this and go, ‘Wow, that was tough, but we made it through’ — just the way my parents and my grandparents talked to me about the Depression. I want to have this in our rearview mirror, but I don’t think that will happen for a while.”
His fear, palpable and hovering around the edges of many of the comments he makes during a long, discursive interview with Variety on a chilly January afternoon, is terrifying. After all, Burns knows of what he speaks. Over four decades and 40 documentaries, he has made the American experience his great artistic endeavor. He’s chronicled the construction of civic wonders like the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as the creation and popularization of distinctly American art forms and pastimes such as jazz and baseball. And he’s also memorialized those periods when the fabric of the country threatened to be torn apart, moments of civil war and revolution, of tribalism and racism that have left many people listening not to the better angels of their nature but to far darker spirits.
To Burns, America in 2022, teetering under the weight of propaganda and plague, is facing stark choices that will determine if it remains true to its foundational belief that “all men are created equal” or succumbs to political polarization and dysfunction.
“America is facing the greatest threat it ever has — period, full stop,” Burns says. “COVID and the unique set of political problems we are dealing with have made it the fourth great crisis. The others are the Civil War, the Depression and World War II.”
So where does that leave the rest of us? The country is in the middle of a racial reckoning and a pandemic that has killed nearly 900,000 Americans. At the same time, politicians like Donald Trump have successfully sold a myth of election fraud to the point where the majority of Republicans believe that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.
“It’s going to take a concerted effort on the part of a lot of well-intentioned people not to stand by and just say, ‘I don’t agree with what’s going on,’ but to somehow get involved in the political process and shore up these institutions,” Burns says.
Burns’ latest film, “Benjamin Franklin,” follows just such a figure, an entrepreneur and a scientist who became an improbable revolutionary. The two-part, four-hour series premieres on April 4 and 5 and will air, as do all Burns’ films, on PBS. The idea to tackle Franklin emerged after a dinner with Walter Isaacson the historian and journalist whose 2003 study of the man was a bestseller. The film was conceived years ago, but it has many topical parallels.
“The founders show us that innovation is a team sport, and you have to have a group with different talents,” says Isaacson. “You needed a person of high rectitude like Washington and smart people like Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton and passionate people like John and Sam Adams, and you needed the glue that pulled them together, which was Franklin. Franklin’s talents are the ones that are the most relevant today, because we’ve got a lot of smart people and passionate people, but we need people who are the glue that will hold us together.”
Revolution is a young person’s game, and as Burns’ film makes clear, Franklin, who was 70 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed, was the elder statesman in a group of youthful upstarts. Moreover, he was already a public figure of international renown. His printing empire had made him rich, but his experiments in electricity and meteorology had made him famous in both the Colonies and Europe. His metamorphosis into Founding Father was more gradual than that of other revolutionary figures, with Franklin at various points hoping to avoid a breach with Britain. And yet he was ultimately motivated to make the break with the crown because of what he viewed as its unfair trading rules and taxes, as well as a growing belief that the chasm between the two sides was irreconcilable.
Burns has faced a similar moral crisis. He’s spoken out about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and used a speech at Yale in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq to note that America was better at starting wars than ending them, but he has been very judicious in commenting on the issues of the day. That changed with Donald Trump’s ascension. Starting with a 2016 commencement address at Stanford University and continuing with interviews and statements throughout Trump’s presidency, Burns made his disdain for Trump and Trumpism quite clear.
“Some people were surprised to see him speak out,” says Sarah Burns, the filmmaker’s daughter and the co-director of her father’s documentaries on the Central Park Five and Muhammad Ali. “It’s just an area where it’s important to make it clear that there’s not common ground.”
Burns, who describes himself as “center left,” draws a distinction between the films he makes and the politics he embraces. “I’m not interested in scoring partisan points in my work; however, I still am a citizen of the United States ” he says. “And when I was asked to give the address at Stanford, I wanted to make it clear that the Republican Party was about to nominate somebody who was temperamentally unfit to be president. And I stand by what I said.”
Even if Burns isn’t looking to apply a partisan lens to history, the very act of telling a warts-and-all story of historical figures such as Franklin feels increasingly like a political act. The specter of critical race theory, a previously obscure graduate-level examination of how historical patterns of racism have been codified into laws and social institutions, has been weaponized by Republican governors in states such as Texas and Virginia to push laws designed to influence how history is taught. At the same time, school boards in states like Tennessee have banned books such as “Maus,” a graphic novel about a Holocaust survivor, from curricula. The past has been politicized in new and troubling ways.
“Some history is painful,” says Lynn Novick, a longtime collaborator who co-directed Burns’ films on Prohibition and Vietnam. “Americans need to see ourselves in an imperfect light and in an adult way I don’t see how we can go forward if we can’t do that.”
In Burns’ editing studio in his hometown of Walpole, N.H., there’s a neon sign that reads, “It’s complicated.” He certainly applied that dictum when it came to Franklin, an intellectual force and a legendary diplomat who could be cold with his wife and loved ones. And though Franklin turned against slavery, becoming president of Philadelphia’s abolition society, he was late to the movement: Earlier, the Franklin household included at least six enslaved individuals, a moral stain on his legacy.
“I wanted to get to the complexity of Franklin — and the more complex a story, the more interesting it is,” says Burns. “You get something that’s truer and more meaningful if you don’t sweep things under the rug because they’re inconvenient.”
• • •
KEN BURNS hates the word “career.” It became anathema, he says, after he interviewed the writer Robert Penn Warren for a documentary that he was making on Huey Long, the populist leader that Warren fictionalized in “All the King’s Men.”
“At one point, he screwed up his eyes and said careerism is death, and I never used the word again,” Burns remembers.
But whatever label you apply, one constant throughout Burns’ working life has been his consistency. Hardly a year goes by without at least one, and frequently two, Burns films coming to television and 2022 is no exception. In addition to “Benjamin Franklin,” the documentarian will premiere a three-part, six-hour look at the U.S. and the Holocaust this September. The project, which still doesn’t have a formal title, focuses on what Americans knew about Hitler’s efforts to exterminate the Jews in Europe and when they knew it. The film will also examine the ways the Nazi leader borrowed from America’s savage treatment of its Native populations, as well as the Jim Crow laws that were enacted to deny Black Americans rights.
“It’s the most important film that I’ll ever work on,” says Burns. “It’s the most consequential.”
Burns’ dance card remains full through 2029, with upcoming documentaries in the works on LBJ and the Great Society, the buffalo, the American Revolution, Reconstruction and Leonardo da Vinci (his first project to unfold entirely outside the continental United States). Still in the brainstorming phase: Burns would also like to do a documentary about Barack Obama. His interests, he says, are eclectic, ranging from art to science, political movements to global conflicts. But he is primarily fascinated by how these narrative threads intersect to comprise the fabric of America.
“If he did a history of plumbing, we’d find 30 great characters and a way to talk about them that says a lot about our country,” says Geoffrey C. Ward, the writer on more than a dozen of Burns’ films.
On any given week Burns is poring over the final edit of one of his next projects while reading scripts or watching rough cuts of films that won’t air for months or even years. On some projects, such as the Franklin film, he conducts most interviews; on others, such as the documentaries he makes with Novick, he cedes that responsibility to his co-directors. He’s able to toggle between so many demands in part because he employs a team of 50 workers through his company Florentine Films, all of whom are editing, prepping or doing interviews and writing scripts for a half-dozen projects. “It’s astounding to watch him work,” says Peter Coyote, the narrator on 12 Burns films. “He’s got wonderful historians coming in, and then he’s got teams of people checking every fact, and then he’s got people cutting and pasting and finding photographs. It’s like the invasion of Normandy, and he supervises it all with tireless energy.”
Documentaries have experienced a commercial renaissance, with streaming services such as Netflix shelling out big money for nonfiction films and expanding their reach. But Burns is loyal to public broadcasting for several reasons. His films can take more than a decade to complete and one to two years to edit, with budgets that can balloon to $30 million, as was the case with Burns’ 2017 series on the Vietnam War. It’s an arrangement that the filmmaker says could only be made possible by PBS, along with a sprawling assemblage of corporate, government and foundational support.
“You’re talking to me only because PBS exists,” says Burns. “No PBS, no me. There’s no dynamic that can support the kind of work we do. I can walk in based on my track record to any place and get $30 million to do Vietnam, but those companies wouldn’t give me 10 1⁄2 years to make the film.”
The broadcaster uses the long gestation time between Burns projects to figure out ways to expand their reach, working with schools to use the films as teaching tools, for instance.
“If Ken was only interested in a fleeting media experience, and this is not to be disparaging, then he might be more comfortable on a commercial network,” says Paula Kerger, PBS CEO. “He’s more interested in what we do, which is to convene conversations in communities.”
There’s good reason PBS is so loyal to the filmmaker. Burns’ 1990 miniseries “The Civil War” was lighting in a bottle — a nationwide must-see event that was unprecedented in PBS history; the show was watched by a record-breaking 38.9 million viewers (and won two Emmys).
“The change in attention was dramatic,” Sarah Burns remembers. “We were suddenly getting mail by the bucketful, and there were stories about the film and him on the news every night.”
It also helped popularize the Ken Burns Effect, a style of panning and zooming over still photography that was essential to lending “The Civil War,” which unfolded well before the advent of motion pictures, a certain visual vitality. It was so recognizable, so instantly iconic, that it has been lampooned on “The Simpsons” and manufactured (with Burns’ permission) by Apple as part of its video software. And Burns’ films share other attributes — they are rigorously researched and expansive, often interspersing historical images with honeyed narration and talking-head interviews with academics and experts.
“It gets parodied, it gets mocked and that’s great,” says Burns. “It just means that it’s out there, and people trust it.”
As part of the effort to ensure that the trust is well founded Burns sets certain rules for himself. He accepts money for speaking engagements, and his company has partnered with Tauck, a high-end travel brand, to design tours of Civil War battlefields and the National Parks that complement his films on those subjects. But he will not do commercials, a lucrative field that other filmmakers use to pay their bills.
His expansive network of supporters includes, in one bucket, grants from governmental institution such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Burns augments that with backing from charitable foundations such as the Ford Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts. For years, General Motors was the exclusive corporate sponsor of his films, but in the early aughts, the filmmaker realized that the auto giant was facing too many business challenges to remain a reliable source of financing. For a time, Bank of America helped fill that void, but when the financial crisis of 2007-08 hit, Burns began seeking support from wealthy donors and smaller family foundations.
Occasionally this has made for strange bedfellows The late David Koch, the billionaire backer of hardcore libertarian and conservative politicians, was a contributor to “The Vietnam War.” But Burns says that he’s erected a firm wall between his financial support and his editorial content that ensures that the political leanings of his backers aren’t reflected in the work. He has final cut on all his films.
“To his credit David Koch loved the Vietnam film and thought it was great even though it documented our many failings,” says Burns.
Burns continues to be a mainstay on PBS’ lineup, with each one of his explorations of history ensuring that the network achieves healthy ratings and media attention. But that relationship is not without controversy. In 2021, nearly 140 filmmakers wrote a letter to PBS executives in which they faulted the public broadcaster for failing to give more opportunities to filmmakers of color. In particular, they argued that PBS’ exclusive relationship with Burns denies BIPOC creators institutional and promotional support. Burns has pushed back against their contention, noting that PBS has instituted many initiatives to support filmmakers of color He also argues that less than 10% of his funding comes from the institution.
“Everybody can do a better job,” he says. “As a film producer, I can do a better job in hiring people, and PBS can do a better job in increasing more funds for equity and inclusion. But they put on over 200 hours of documentary programming last year, of which I was 12 hours. [African American scholar and filmmaker] Henry Louis Gates had many more hours than that. I am not taking up space, and I am not taking up the money. I’m raising it on my own.”
For its part, PBS says it welcomes the debate around representation and has worked to increase grants to filmmakers from underrepresented communities.
“Being able to have these discussions about how do we support a range of voices has been a good thing to engage with, and we look forward to doing more and more work to improve things,” says Kerger.
Race has been an important theme in Burns’ films, from his documentaries about boxers Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson (the latter film titled “Unforgivable Blackness”) to his most recent look at Benjamin Franklin It’s a focus that will continue in his upcoming series on Reconstruction, which will chronicle the brutality and institutionalized racism that Black people faced in the wake of the Civil War. But in recent years there’s been a growing debate about who should tell certain stories. Should Black or gay or Latino filmmakers direct movies about the history of their communities? Is it appropriate for white directors like Burns to make movies about those histories?
“I encourage others to tell their stories and celebrate that, but I don’t accept that only people of a particular background can tell stories about the past,” says Burns. “We need to address the fact that some people don’t have access to the means of sharing their narratives at a higher level. That has to be changed, and I support diversity, inclusion and equity, but I’m in the business of history, and that history includes everyone.”
• • •
At various points over the past five years, Burns has acted as consoler to a wide swath of the country upset by the constant assault on the Constitution. After his speech at Stanford he received scores of letters from students in the audience that day, who confessed they didn’t do enough to stop Trump’s rise to power or who reached out to Burns because he appears as an emissary from another time, one in which there was such a thing as political norms.
In the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Politico asked Burns to weigh in on how history could help people understand the crisis. He was asked if the riot was the start of something or an end.
“It is neither, of course,” Burns wrote. “It is a moment when we each get to decide how we want to proceed.”
More than a year later, Burns believes America still stands at a crossroads. To describe the two paths that the country faces, he turns to a classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which premiered in 1946 as the country was looking ahead to a period of unrivaled prosperity while still grappling with the carnage of World War II. In it, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is made to see both his impact on his small town of Bedford Falls as well as the bleak fate that awaited it were he to have never lived and the community had fallen under the sway of a rapacious tycoon named Mr. Potter.
“My whole question to America is where do you want to live?” says Burns. “This is a simple choice between Bedford Falls and Pottersville. Do you wish to be a community in which everyone is bound to each other and enjoys the blessings of liberty and free speech and freedom to assemble and religion? Or do you wish to live in an I’ll-get-mine Pottersville, in which everything is degraded and corrupted. Where it’s all transactional and nothing is transformational.”
In the past, the country has managed to reemerge from these moments of peril, of sectional conflict or global conflagration, bruised but somehow stronger in the broken places. That might not be the case this time. There is nothing, he notes, that guarantees that America will endure.
“Nothing lasts forever,” says Burns. “The question is do we wish to be complicit in the end of this American experiment?”