This weekend concludes Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and so it seems like a good time to look forward to what’s next on the slate for the director, who is in the middle of a 15-year contract with PBS that lasts until 2022.
In 2015, there will be the three-episode The Emperor of All Maladies, about cancer, based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same name. Burns, a co-writer and executive producer on the series, initially resisted working on it because of his workload. But the issue cuts close to the man who not only has close friends who have been affected, but his mother also died of cancer when he was 11.
Next year, there will also be Jackie Robinson, about the baseball player who broke the color barrier, in a double play for Burns; his fascination with the game and his conviction that race is our nation’s central issue should make it one to watch.
And in 2016, there will be Vietnam, which I was able to see some rough cuts of recently. What I saw provoked my current reappraisal of Burns’s work. The intimate interviews, new source material, elaborate storytelling techniques and implementation of textual representation on the screen that would impress David Fincher have convinced me that Vietnam could be Burns’s most significant series since The Civil War.
Burns was very revealing in discussing the process of making Vietnam when I asked him if he knows whether he is “getting” a scene just right in that series.
Here’s our exchange:
Ken Burns: We have a shot in there which you saw which I am not so crazy for… It’s a live shot of an exploding shell with the ‘delta-lima-papa-bravo.’ And it used to be over a black-and-white still photograph. And we are now experimenting with that. And it’s not as perfect as I felt it was. And I’ve changed the words. It used to be, “The war began in secrecy and it ended in humiliation, witnessed by the entire world.” I changed it to “defeat, witnessed by the entire world.” I changed that to “retreat, witnessed by the entire world.” And I am now on “failure, witnessed by the entire world.”
Doc Soup Man: Just one word.
Burns: Just one word is huge. You want to say, “humilation?” Well, we got out of Vietnam by 1972 and we were deep in Watergate and wondering what was going on with that. Inflation. Gas costs, And, “Oh, God, Saigon is falling? Well, that’s terrible.” Is that humiliation? I don’t really think so. Was it defeat? Nobody came over and conquered the United States. We f-ed up. It wasn’t a good war. Was it retreat? We had already retreated. So, at that moment, we were showing a line of people snaking up to a helicopter at the top of the embassy compound. What is this? It’s failure.
I told Burns I thought he’ll be tearing open a wound that had become a scar over the years, one that mostly healed.
“Well, but it hasn’t,” he said. “I think all of our acidic politics of today come out of Vietnam and Watergate. And we’re going to postulate a connection between Watergate and Vietnam that I think is pretty interesting. We’re working on it right now, having to do with the Nixon tapes. What has happened is that Vietnam has been frozen into a conventional wisdom… The scholarship, the history, on it has changed so much.”
But we’ll have to wait. For me, the time I spent talking with Burns this summer has been deeply rewarding. And a little bit daunting. I first met him at Hampshire College, where he was overseeing a new program. He was blunt with the students. When it comes to interviewing, “If they don’t do a good job, it’s my fault,” he said of his interviewees. “If they do a great job, then it’s them.”
When I interviewed him, I truly felt like it was all him.
Before the memory of Roosevelts recedes as we jump to the next thing, I’ll leave you with one last exchange I had with Burns, in which I queried him about whether his work resonates with younger audiences.
It is “only advertisers who need certain demographics,” he said. “All real meaning accrues in duration. The work you’re proudest of, the relationships you care most about, have benefited from your sustained attention.”
Over these seven days of The Roosevelts, our sustained attention has been tested. There are so many tweets to check, shows to watch, work to do. But I hope you agree with me that taking the time out to watch Burns’s latest was worth it.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History continues on PBS stations. “Ken Burns: The Kindle Singles Interview” by Tom Roston is now available at Amazon.com.
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