PASADENA, Calif. — Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’s “The Address” have something in common: brevity.
Burns’s critically acclaimed films — including “The Civil War” and “Baseball” — are sprawling epics. But “The Address” clocks in under 90 minutes. The film focuses on a school in Vermont for boys with learning difficulties and shows how their lives are enriched as they learn to recite President Lincoln’s famous 273-word speech. Burns spoke with reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour about the film.
Q. What is it about presenting the Gettysburg Address through these kids’ eyes that was so important to you?
A. I think, first of all, the importance of the address. We have now just passed the 150th anniversary, so there’s a historical connection, which always gets me interested. And I think that approaching the sesquicentennial was the thing that made me just sort of jump in, despite the fact that I was working on six other films.
Q. Given the extensive vetting by different interested parties that goes into presidential speeches in the modern era, do you think the Gettysburg Address could be written today?
A. Lincoln (as was Jefferson) was edited by others, and suggestions were made. It wasn’t so much by committee. And I think we’ve seen, in the last several decades, some pretty spectacular speeches. I would argue that this is the most important speech in American history because it’s doubling down on the Declaration of Independence and saying we really do mean that all men are created equal at this site of the worst battle on American soil. We just finished a big series on the Roosevelts, and I can submit a couple of TR’s and several of FDR’s that went through some kind of review but I think also still retain the stamp of the writer, that still you felt it was this poetic expression, as the Gettysburg Address certainly is, of one man’s vision of what the country could be.
Q. How close do you think the American spirit today is to Lincoln’s time?
A. It’s both radically different and, in many ways, surprisingly the same. I’m fond of quoting Ecclesiastes, which says there’s nothing new under the sun, that human nature remains the same. But we’re a country that looks entirely different. We had, at the time, just emancipated
4 million Americans who happened to be owned by other Americans earlier in that year of 1863. We had a demographic population that doesn’t look like the population we have, but we’re a country where words matter. And that’s one of the hearts of this story, as much as it is about the extraordinary struggle of these young boys. I mean, I’m challenging all of you, and I’m serious about this, to memorize the Gettysburg Address. We’ve challenged the country, and we mean everybody. And you’ll curse me for a few days, but you’ll be able to do it.
These kids, it takes three months, but they pull it off. And three months later they still had it on their hard drive, and 30 years later they’ll still remember that thing. And it tells you the power of these words. The English words spoken at the first anniversary of 9/11 was the Gettysburg Address. It has nothing to do with 9/11, but we knew that those words were medicine. So I think that American spirit is there. Sometimes it feels buried under a ton of words, of images, of uncivil discourse. But it doesn’t take too much to prick the surface and realize how hungry we are for that sense of community.
Q. Is this a project that the Greenwood School does every year?
A. Yes. The Greenwood School has been in existence for 35 years, and its founders saw this as a wonderful kind of programmatic thing that happens. They get back from Thanksgiving vacation. The boys are challenged to do this. They set a date, usually mid-February, around Lincoln’s birthday. And then they study it. And they help one another. And they’re doing it at lunch. And you’ll see in the film there’s an amazing cohesion that takes place.
I got involved 10 years ago because I’m a neighbor. I live across the river [from Putney, Vt.] in Walpole, N.H. And they asked me to come and judge this. And I just wept and said, “Well, somebody should [film] this. This is cinema verite. I do something else.” And I kept saying this over the years, and finally was like, Shut up. Just do it.
Interview has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe