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Ken Burns, America's best-known documentarian, explained

The filmmaker has gone from Oscar nominee to PBS fixture to American institution.

2012 Summer TCA Tour - Day 2
Ken Burns presents his 2012 film The Dust Bowl at the 2012 Summer TCA Press Tour.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There are a lot of great filmmakers, the old joke about Ken Burns goes, but only one has an Apple iMovie effect named after him.

The technique immortalized by Apple’s Ken Burns Effect — which will zoom in on photos and then pan across them — wasn’t invented by Burns; he has most frequently said he learned of it from his mentor, documentarian Jerome Liebling. But it’s nonetheless become heavily associated with Burns’s efforts to exhume America’s musty past and imbue it with the drama and grandeur it held when it was still the present.

The Ken Burns Effect also functions as a microcosm of both what the director does and why his work sometimes proves controversial. It’s a sort of cinematic hack, a way to make old, still photographs feel more alive, to remind us that the people who lived through these extraordinary events were still people, just like us. Burns doesn’t use it in every project — for his most recent miniseries, The Vietnam War, he had plenty of file footage at his disposal — but when he does, it helps viewers reorient themselves in a bygone era.

And yet that very act of specifically connecting the past to the human beings who lived in it has gotten Burns in trouble here and there, even causing some to question his breakthrough project, 1990’s The Civil War, for too heavily romanticizing the Confederacy. For better or worse, Burns’s work, which airs on PBS, is situated firmly within the confines of the American conventional wisdom, where most PBS programs reside. His aim is not to make us rethink American history, but, rather, to reexperience it.

That’s why most criticisms of Burns that are made on the grounds of improper history ultimately come up short. He’s not about events. He’s about people.

The three things you need to know to understand Ken Burns

The Roosevelts
The Roosevelts shows what Ken Burns does so well.

1) Burns exclusively makes movies about American history

From his very first film — the Oscar-nominated 1981 documentary Brooklyn Bridge — Burns has focused exclusively on American history, and largely American history from the Civil War to the late 20th century. A couple of his projects (like a film about Lewis & Clark’s early 19th-century expedition through the American West) have predated the Civil War, but by and large, his films explore the US from 1860 to 1990. (I’m going to use the word “films” to refer to Burns’s work, even though most of them are technically TV miniseries. It’s often how he talks about his own projects, and “film” is also the best catch-all term for a closed-ended work whose running time might be anywhere from 58 minutes to almost 20 hours.)

Burns is not a trained historian. Instead, he’s a filmmaker first, a historian second. Here’s what he told me when I interviewed him in 2014:

I knew history. I was curious about stories. I played Civil War; I played World War II. I knew the presidents. But it wasn’t anything that I thought of as something I was going to do. I was going to be an anthropologist like my dad, I was going to be a writer, and then I was going to be a filmmaker. By the time I was 12, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I thought that would be a feature filmmaker, and it was only in college, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, that I had a chance to see the possibility of documentaries and the first film I worked on was history, and then it’s been history ever since. I’m not trained in history. The last time I took a history course was in college — but that was Russian history, and all of my films are on American history.

Essentially, American history is the canvas Burns uses to tell the sorts of smaller stories you might see in many of the feature films he most loves. He’s cited to me both Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as seminal works in his development as a filmmaker. It’s no coincidence that both projects are about people whose personal lives intertwine with the epic sweep of much larger conflicts. And that’s the approach Burns has always taken — rather than trying to understand history through political or social movements, he generally starts from personal narratives, telling the story of history from the ground up.

2) He’s only gotten more expansive the longer he makes movies

Here’s the second thing you need to know about Ken Burns: His projects have only gotten more and more expansive. (Or, as he told me in that 2014 interview, “There’s a fire in Brooklyn Bridge that lasts about 30 seconds in our film. I could make that fire 25 minutes now.”) Everything he made in the ’80s is 90 minutes or shorter, with several works under an hour. And then The Civil War ran 11 and a half hours across nine episodes and Burns’s projects slowly began to sprawl.

Baseball, first released in 1994 and later updated in 2010, now runs more than 19 hours long. Jazz from 2001 clocks in right at 19 hours. The Vietnam War is 18 hours split into 10 parts. Even Burns’s “smaller” projects (like 2012’s The Dust Bowl and 2016’s Jackie Robinson) now typically fall in the four-to-six-hour range. It’s not as if Burns can’t make shorter films; 2012’s The Central Park Five and 2014’s The Address are both under two hours. But his tastes have converged toward more and more ambitious projects over the years.

Some of this is because Burns seems to have settled into television — and exclusively PBS — as his home. Most of the topics he selects, even the more compact ones, suggest multiple chapters already, so why not give each one its own episode? Especially as Burns’s projects have become big hits for PBS, the network is only too happy to have 10 installments of a new miniseries to run across two weeks of primetime television. It doesn’t seem to place any limits on his ambitions, which is not always ideal.

3) Ken Burns is almost always more than just “Ken Burns.” He has numerous frequent collaborators.

The third thing you need to know to understand Ken Burns is that he’s now an institution, and like all institutions, he’s not just himself. Burns works with numerous collaborators, several of whom have co-directed multiple films with him. And as he has become more prolific — often releasing one, if not two, projects per year — his collaborations have become more important to understanding his work.

Burns’s prominent collaborators sometimes include family members, like his brother, Ric Burns, who co-wrote many of Burns’s earliest projects (including The Civil War) before starting to make his own films. (Ric Burns’s movies have their own rawer style and are well worth seeing; Ken Burns has produced several of them.) Burns’s daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, have also worked with him on the recent projects Central Park Five and Jackie Robinson.

'The Vietnam War' Premiere - 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick present The Vietnam War at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Perhaps Burns’s most important collaborator is Lynn Novick, with whom he’s co-directed 1998’s Frank Lloyd Wright, 2007’s The War, the 2010 segments of Baseball, 2011’s Prohibition, and this year’s The Vietnam War. But Novick has also produced almost all of his giant miniseries, a massive undertaking in and of itself. (Novick is equally worthy of a lengthy explainer, so I’ll link to this one.)

Poke through Burns’s filmography, and you’ll notice that many of the same names pop up again and again, whether as writers or producers or behind-the-scenes personnel. Like many similarly prominent filmmakers, Burns likes working with the same people, over and over again.

Consider Geoffrey C. Ward, who’s credited as the writer on many, many Burns films and has written several nonfiction companion books sold alongside the release of the films. (Ward both wrote The Vietnam War and co-wrote the companion book.) Burns’s films are often narrated by actors Peter Coyote and Keith David, and many feature well-known actors reading historical documents in the voices of long-dead Americans. Burns’s upcoming 2019 project, Country Music, was written by one frequent collaborator, Dayton Duncan, and produced by another, Julie Dunfey. His biography of Ernest Hemingway, also slated for 2019, will be co-directed by Novick.

Just clicking “the filmmakers” on Burns’s official website will link you to a page listing 49 different people who have worked with or are currently working with Burns on one film or another, under the aegis of his production company Florentine Films. Talking about “Ken Burns” in 2017 increasingly refers to all of these people as a collective.

Ken Burns’s approach to history is what made him so well-known — but it’s also opened him up to criticism

The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War is driven more by its people than its arguments.
Bettmann/Getty Images for PBS

By and large, Burns’s approach to historical documentary-making is less about advancing any particular argument about the events he covers in any given film. Indeed, perhaps his most criticized project, Jazz, is the film where he most prominently argued a specific case (in that instance, a more or less purist one that most modern jazz doesn’t match up to the early stuff). Usually, Burns isn’t going to try to convince you to radically rethink what you already know.

Instead, he’s interested in presenting a documentary as though it were a narrative feature, complete with “characters” who recur throughout and numerous story threads that come together and fall apart as events dictate. Everything in all his films really happened, but Burns is less interested in the god’s eye view than he is in the ground-level, human stories.

The Vietnam War might reflect the height of this approach. It blends multiple perspectives, including those of military forces on all sides of the conflict, governments on all sides of the conflict, members of the anti-war movement, families of the soldiers at war, and assorted other tertiary figures like journalists and spies.

Some of these figures appear in multiple episodes; others fall away as their experiences take them further from battle. The effect is almost novelistic, where the overall story of the war is less important than the smaller stories of survival and struggle that comprised it.

And yet The Vietnam War also sneakily advances a series of genuine larger arguments. Burns and Novick slowly but surely build the miniseries so that it argues, in rough order of prominence, that: 1) the Vietnam War exposed many of the inherent contradictions at the heart of the American experiment, 2) Americans’ good intentions didn’t matter when it came to how those intentions led to meaningless bloodshed, and 3) the rifts opened up by the Vietnam War have never properly healed.

In and of themselves, these are not wildly unusual arguments. Numerous histories of the war have put forth one or another. But by rooting their perspective so thoroughly in that of the individual humans involved, Burns and Novick slyly end-around any objections you might have. Even if you finish the miniseries and still disagree with any of these arguments, you’ll be forced to grapple with why that’s the case.

Burns is also interested in the way that looking at American history through multiple points of view can offer different levels of understanding. He’s remarked to me, among others, that it’s impossible to grapple with American history without talking about the history of race in America, but the way that his films explore the struggle for racial equality and the deeply embedded racism in American society varies, depending on whether he’s talking about war, or about baseball, or about jazz. Similarly, the events of the Great Depression and World War II look very different in The Dust Bowl and The War, compared to how they look in 2014’s The Roosevelts, which examines both of the former subjects from the point of view of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

However, if there’s a place where Burns opens himself up to criticism, it’s inherent to his approach. When he launched The War, for instance, it was meant to look at World War II through the lens of four American small towns. But in choosing such an intimate focus — as a means of differentiating The War from the literally hundreds of other World War II documentaries — Burns failed to leave room for the voices of anyone from other nations, not even American allies. Initially, he also failed to leave room for Latinos who fought in the war, an issue he hastily fixed between the first screenings of the miniseries and its ultimate airing on PBS.

Similarly, The Civil War has come under fire from time to time for the ways in which its critics say it romanticizes the Confederacy (often because of the extensive participation of the historian Shelby Foote). I would argue that the film is quite clear-eyed about the horrors of slavery and the way it caused the country to tear itself apart, but Burns’s human-level approach necessitates trying to get inside the heads of various Confederate soldiers, which makes them seem more sympathetic than they might appear in a more top-down, scholarly history.

Burns doesn’t necessarily want to find something good about everybody in his films, but he does want to find what’s human about them, or how they reflect America back at itself. In the best possible way, he wants to offer the most easily accessible viewpoint on complicated events. He doesn’t dumb things down or oversimplify them, but he does give them the kind of narrative thrust we associate with feature filmmaking. That’s an honorable, understandable goal for a documentary filmmaker, but less of one for a historian, and most of the tensions over Burns’s films (especially his earlier ones) crack open around this fault line.

Finally, Burns’s now-trademark approach tends to fall apart when there aren’t a lot of people inherently involved in his subject du jour. His 2009 work The National Parks, for example, is filled with stunning, natural imagery, and does its level best to dramatize many of the founding figures in America’s environmental movements over the years. But it’s ultimately a bit of a snooze because Burns’s style isn’t particularly well suited to what is essentially a nature documentary.

Ken Burns might be the best-known documentary filmmaker in America. But what will his legacy be?

Ken Burns’s The Civil War
The Civil War is still probably Ken Burns’s best known film.

Ken Burns turned 64 in 2017. He’s directed or co-directed 27 films and produced or co-produced even more. His slate of upcoming projects includes the officially announced Country Music and Ernest Hemingway both for 2019, along with a confirmed 2021 project (co-directed with Sarah Burns and McMahon) on Muhammad Ali, and a heavily rumored project about the history of stand-up comedy. He says he’s already set a schedule of films with PBS that runs through the late 2020s, with many as yet unannounced.

All of this makes Ken Burns probably the best-known documentary filmmaker in America, which also makes him a bit of a brand in addition to an institution. Though Burns has been able to shake off the Ken Burns Effect in recent years — The Address is a cinéma-vérité documentary about a special needs school’s students memorizing the Gettysburg Address, while The Vietnam War is largely composed of archival footage — he’s always going to be defined by it in a way that other similarly lauded documentarians, like Errol Morris and Alex Gibney, aren’t defined by their own styles.

This leaves Burns in a place where lots and lots of people know him primarily for parodies of his work (like the 2012 Community episode that recounts an epic pillow fight via voiceover that’s read over still photographs), and where his genuine passion for American history makes it highly unlikely that he’ll abruptly make, say, an investigative documentary like Morris or Gibney might. For a lot of people, a Ken Burns miniseries is something you know you need to get around to watching, while never actually getting around to watching it. His projects can feel like civic obligations, rather than movies that are fun to watch.

And he can be his own worst enemy. In his less successful films, his style lapses into self-parody or overkill. The War, for instance, is good but suffers often from Burns’s insistence that you feel everything his subjects felt, which he’ll underline with stirring music, meant to jerk tears.

Still, for having made so many films, in such a short span of time, it’s amazing just how many of those films are great. Burns is good at so many things — interviewing primary sources, editing massive amounts of footage into surprisingly propulsive films, doing lots and lots and lots of research — that it’s too bad he’s been hamstrung by his own success in a way documentary filmmakers rarely are. The massive triumph of The Civil War nearly 30 years ago has meant that his name will always be associated with a slow pan across a photograph as mournful fiddle music plays, even if that’s unfair to much of his later work.

Indeed, the overly sentimental, middlebrow, American cheerleader parody of Burns is far from accurate. Particularly in the past decade, his films have grown darker and more fascinated by the many contradictions inherent to the American existence. The Vietnam War digs into these contradictions by simple virtue of its existence, but something like Prohibition or The Dust Bowl is a subtle indictment of the ways unchecked capitalism leads to horrible public policy, which leads to self-inflicted national wounds.

Burns is a booster of most Americans as individuals, but he is rarely a mindless booster of America itself. He finds the country’s ideals fascinating, but is more than aware how rarely the country realizes them, even when it comes to the smallest scale of an individual American life. His legacy might end up being an iPhoto effect, but it would be more appropriate if he were remembered as a filmmaker who endlessly probed the tension between what America believes itself to be and what it actually is, via the horrible grandeur of being just one person tossed into the epic sweep of history, as we all eventually are.

Correction: The original version of this post said Geoffrey C. Ward didn’t write The Vietnam War. He did.

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