Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Waking the Dead: From Baseball to the Roosevelts, the Film-Maker Ken Burns Has Devoted a Career to Resurrecting America's History

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Waking the Dead: From Baseball to the Roosevelts, the Film-Maker Ken Burns Has Devoted a Career to Resurrecting America's History

Article excerpt

Perhaps you can't imagine why you would commit yourself to a 14-hour film about the Roosevelts. Yes, Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, has his face up on Mount Rushmore; sure, we know that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were hugely significant political figures. But 14 hours, over seven episodes? The film's creator, the American documentarian Ken Burns, has a snappy one-liner to pull you in. He grins at me conspiratorially over his Caesar salad. "This is the American Downton Abbey," he says. "Except it's all true."

It is hard to overstate the importance of Burns's work when talking about documentary cinema in the U S. An independent filmmaker who has built his career by working with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the American non-commercial TV station, he first came to wide public attention with the broadcast of The Civil War. This epic, 11 and a half hours long, was the highest-rated series in the history of PBS: 40 million people watched its premiere in 1990.

The Civil War, now a staple of classrooms all over the US, is only a fragment of Burns's achievement. Brooklyn Bridge, Jazz, Baseball, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl--to list the documentaries he has made with Florentine Films, his New Hampshire-based company, is to trace a groundbreaking journey through American history. His films have won 13 Emmy Awards and two Oscar nominations and he has been honoured by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences with a lifetime achievement award. And if you've got a Mac, you can click into iMovie and take advantage of "the Ken Burns effect" - which allows you to pan across an image, the trademark of his films and the one that has enabled him to make dynamic motion pictures using still photographs, as in The Civil War. (If you're wondering, he doesn't profit from this use of his name, though the late Steve Jobs, a friend of his, asked him if he would make their connection official. Burns asked for Apple to give him equipment to donate to schools and non-profit organisations and the deal was done.)

In the US, he is stopped-in-the-street famous. I am always astonished at how little known he is in Britain. The Roosevelts: an Intimate History may change that. When it premiered on PBS in September, it eclipsed even The Civil War, with more than 50 million people tuning in; Lord Puttnam, introducing him to a British audience when they were in conversation at the BFI in London, likened him to David Attenborough, as a naturalist of humanity, someone who "explains us to ourselves".

Writing in the Guardian, Geoff Dyer compared the series to the work of Tolstoy and assured viewers that they shouldn't be daunted by the length: "You will be gripped, enlightened, moved and thoroughly convinced that your time could not have been more profitably spent."

But then Burns was ahead of the game with long-form television. He looks a little wry when he says: "We live in a world where people said, 'No one will watch The Civil War--but they did. 'No one will watch Baseball [almost 19 hours]'--but they did. 'No one will watch The War [14 hours]' but they did. Now they don't say that any more, because we binge."

He has been on the road with his friend Beau Willimon, the creator of the American House of Cards--the ultimate show for binge-watching--taking part in an event called "The Roosevelts meet the Underwoods". The comparisons were about getting things done, about strong women, about the process of politics. It was here that the Downton Abbey line came to him.

It's not a bad comparison for this compelling blend of personal and political drama, much of which would stretch the bounds of belief, if it weren't all true. How could you believe that a man shot in the chest from seven feet away--as Teddy Roosevelt was when campaigning to regain the presidency in 1912--would go on speaking for more than an hour, the bullet still lodged in his ribs? There are many other gripping stories. …

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