Does U.S. history have a more effective or thoughtful champion than Ken Burns?
The "Civil War" filmmaker delivers another sublime achievement in "The Address," which premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.
It's a real change of pace for Burns, a poignant look at a Vermont school where boys, ages 11 to 17, struggle to memorize the Gettysburg Address. The boys have learning differences, such as dyslexia and ADHD.
The 90-minute film has an easy, down-to-earth charm. The sound track offers bouncy music; the screen is repeatedly decorated with scrawled names to identify people; and the boys serve as narrators of Civil War history.
This is no Burns epic, yet it has an epic and memorable outcome. Burns deftly illustrates how history connects to modern lives and enriches them.
With guidance from teachers and tutors at the Greenwood School, the boys work for months to understand the meaning of Abraham Lincoln's words and to speak them clearly.
Lincoln's "words would endure as if they were medicine," the narration says.
The Lincoln medicine translates into greater confidence and stirring satisfaction for the children. One boy says learning the speech helps improve his stutter. A therapist sounds off on the boys' need to be themselves and not conform to parents' wishes that they be normal.
Burns was fortunate to find likable, natural children for "The Address." Ian, an eloquent and angry victim of bullying, says he has regained a sense of belonging at the Greenwood School. Ned shares his frustration and pride in learning the speech. Young Geo grows before viewers' eyes.
Burns wrote, produced and directed the film. Simple and straightforward, the documentary counts down to the deadline the boys face for learning the speech. "The Address" builds to a powerful emotional payoff, a montage of the boys delivering the words and gaining from the experience.
The viewer gains, too. U.S. history and its pertinence are put into an inspirational context.
That's the Burns artistry. "The Address" may never be mentioned in the same category as "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz," all well-remembered epics.
"The Address" is not lofty, yet it achieves lofty results through its hopeful style. And don't be surprised if you shed a few tears, too.
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