Ken Burns has been shooting the same movie over and over for 40 years.

His subjects may span centuries and cross cultural divides, but the filmmaker says each of his more than 40 documentaries ponders the same simple and misleading question: “Who are we?” Who are these weird, complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?

Most people would cave under the weight of such questions. Burns, however, has built an Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmography by working through them, one person, one event, and one American brand at a time.

Last year he made his debut with PBS films about Ernest Hemingway and Muhammad Ali. In 2019 he traced the origins of country music and in 2017 unveiled “The Vietnam War,” which took a decade to produce.

But his latest effort goes further back in history than it has in more than 20 years, since 1997’s ‘Thomas Jefferson’. He returns to PBS with ‘Benjamin Franklin,’ a two-part film (Monday and Tuesday, 8 EDT/PDT; check local listings) on the man he adamantly calls “the most fascinating American figure of the 18th century.”

Continued:There is no national day to honor hometowns. So Ken Burns asks for your help.

“All of our attention during this period is rightly on a Jefferson, on a Washington, on an Adams, on a Madison and lately on a Hamilton,” Burns says. “But Franklin is on the $100 bill because he’s trying to lift you up. His story is so fundamentally American in many ways that it is, to me, irresistible.

Filmmaker Ken Burns.

An influential printer by trade, prolific inventor by hobby, and definitive politician by compromise, Franklin posed an appealing challenge to Burns, who immerses viewers in stills and film footage that preserves his given subjects.

Franklin predates such inventions, leaving Burns and his team to organize a delicate dance of paintings, animations, written sources and the imposing voice of Mandy Patinkin as a founding father to interrogate the collective American memory of a complicated man. .

“We can understand Franklin Roosevelt or Muhammad Ali a little better because we feel like we can reach out and touch them,” Burns says. “The challenge here was to bring someone from the 18th century to life in a way that had dimension, that had flaws.”

Franklin's Bookshop in Philadelphia, 1745. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, circa 1910.

Franklin printed some of the most influential newspapers of all time, pioneered our understanding of electricity, wrote extensively with a remarkably dry wit, negotiated France’s involvement in the American Revolution, and guided his fellow founding fathers in creating a more perfect union than he knew.

But he was also a negligent husband, estranged father and slave owner and eventual abolitionist who was instrumental in drafting the Constitution, particularly the grant that gave Southern states the power to count the slaves as three-fifths of a person.

He was flawed, and that’s what appealed to Burns.

“We don’t live in a melodramatic world and we don’t have a melodramatic story,” he says. “We have, as IF Stone said, a tragic history, which means that these contradictions, virtue and vice, are embedded in people. The tragedy of human existence interests me more than 100 melodramas in which you isolated a superficially “perfect” hero who never was.”

A young Benjamin Franklin at the printing press, 1876, by Enoch Wood Perry.

A critical part of bringing Franklin’s complex legacy to life was finding his voice through Patinkin, whom Burns effusively praises for capturing Franklin’s spirit.

He “brought incredible life force to Franklin’s writings; I have no other way to put it,” Burns says. “He’s a beautiful human being, and he’s given us every ounce of his talent to bring to life someone who’s been dead for over 200 years. It’s such an amazing gift.

Josh Lucas joins Patinkin as Franklin’s loyalist son, William); Liam Neeson as a member of the House of Commons; and Paul Giamatti, reprising his Emmy-winning role as John Adams, which he played in the 2008 HBO miniseries. Frequent Burns collaborator Peter Coyote returns as narrator.

Burns’ long-awaited return to the 18th century also serves as the opening act for an even more comprehensive project on the horizon.

He’s been working for years on “The American Revolution,” a five-part chronicle of the founding war that will arrive just in time for its 250th anniversary.

“It won’t come out until 2025, but I have to say it feels like tomorrow,” Burns says.

“The Revolution has everything; it’s about the challenge of ‘Benjamin Franklin’ multiplied by three or four because of its length. But like Franklin, he has such a new story, and yet the superficial story is embedded in our narrative of ourselves. We’re not going to throw this away but we’re going to make it more complicated, as it should be. »


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