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In many ways, Benjamin Franklin — an extraordinary polymath who ran his own newspaper and wrote a popular almanac, invented the lightning rod and bifocals, played a key role as a diplomat with France and signed the Declaration of Independence — was a one-of-a-kind American talent and a true product of his era. But also, argues documentary stalwart Ken Burns, who latest PBS title focuses on the 18th-century icon, in key ways Franklin and his story remain relatable and resonant in 2022. “When you go back into the past and excavate these extraordinary people… they have an opportunity to speak to us quite directly,” says Burns. “Franklin is great because he just busts out of that powdered wig era and says, ‘Nope, I am like you.'”
Burns’ new two-part Benjamin Franklin, with the first part premiering on PBS on Monday, dwells on the inconsistencies and complications in Franklin’s story that, in the filmmaker’s estimation, make him so human. “We are all a bundle of contradictions. We are — all of us, if we’re honest — a bundle of failings and successes. When you are living life as big and as large as Franklin, [that’s] writ out,” says Burns.
Burns, writer Dayton Duncan (who also penned past Burns projects The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and The Dust Bowl) and a host of expert talking heads like historian and Rutgers University professor Erica Dunbar and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life author Walter Isaacson highlight Franklin’s ownership of slaves despite his self-professed quest for “moral perfection” (very late in life, he became an abolitionist). They also note that Franklin initially was a strong advocate for the American colonies remaining with Britain until he changed positions, championing the Revolution. The story highlights how, despite achieving early success, Franklin (voiced in the film by The Princess Bride and Homeland star Mandy Patinkin) held to the Enlightenment principles of continuing to learn and evolve throughout his life, especially during his time as a diplomat and revolutionary.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter prior to the release of Benjamin Franklin, Burns discusses why modern events don’t change his telling of history, what viewers in 2022 can learn from Franklin’s story and his take on the recent boom in documentary filmmaking.
Why did you decide to turn your attention to Benjamin Franklin’s life particularly?
Well, you fall in love with a story, and the mysteries of that are still arcane to me. It’s like, why is your best friend your best friend? But I think you’re drawn to Franklin for a number of reasons: He seems accessible in a way that most of the other so-called “founders” aren’t; he’s an extraordinary polymath — the list of his accomplishments is just staggering; he’s the best American writer of the 18th century; he’s a very successful businessman, we put him on the $100 bill, the largest bill in circulation, to celebrate his up-by-the-bootstraps kind of making it on his own. [But] he never, ever untethered that individual search for success and fortune from a civic responsibility, which I think [is what] the people who laud him for that up-from-the-bootstraps [story] forget, that he always had a civic component. He’s our first humorist; his personality is obviously wonderful and complicated. He himself is not without glaring faults in lots of different departments, but he worked on himself all his life. He’s the greatest diplomat in American history; he’s the first person to have conceived of what it would be to be an American, not just a British subject; he was radically, way ahead of his time with that, but yet he spent a good deal of time trying to knit things together and make peace between the Colonies and Great Britain. It was only when that failed that he became a revolutionary. Without him, there’s no us, both the lower-case and upper-case U.S.
And then he helped forge the compromises, some of which in the Declaration are tragic, like accommodating the South’s wish to count their slave population towards representation, what we call the three-fifths clause. But we wouldn’t have had a United States without those kinds of things, and so it’s a very, very complicated story. And at the end of his life, this man who had slaves becomes an abolitionist.
When you go back into the past and excavate these extraordinary people, sometimes they’re so-called ordinary people — I don’t believe in the [phrase] ordinary people — and sometimes they’re famous people, like Benjamin Franklin; they have an opportunity to speak to us quite directly. Particularly if you’re able to make an effort, as we try to do, to tolerate and understand the contradictions and the flaws and to show their humanness rather than [keep] the distance of a powdered wig era. Benjamin Franklin is great because he just busts out of that powdered wig era and says, “Nope, I am like you.”
You got the idea for the film several years ago. Did the core points that you wanted to make with the project or the shape of the film change in any way throughout the years, given recent events?
No. This is the thing that is really central to our process: It’s really hard to tell a good story. It’s really hard, specifically, to tell a good story in the 18th century because there are no photographs, and there’s no footage, right? You’re already challenged. But the storytelling itself has nothing to do with keeping an eye on cable news; it just doesn’t. It takes too long — it’s a years-long effort — and so we’re working on it, and we’ve learned now after doing this for 45 years that you’re going to finish a film, and it’s going to resonate in the present. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” which is wonderful. Human nature doesn’t change, and the same degree of greed and generosity within and between people exists then at any time in history as it does now, the same prurience and puritanism within as well as between people. I’m not making a film to tell you what I already know; last time I checked, it’s called “homework.” It’s a process of discovery, like wow, you can’t believe what we just learned. So by the time we finish and lift up our heads, we’re going, “Oh, my God, it’s speaking to now.” But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that that’s been the case with 40 other films I’ve made.
The film really dives deep into Franklin’s contradictions. Over the course of making this film, did you come to find any through line for or theme to these contradictions, or did they end up feeling very idiosyncratic to you?
I would suggest to you, in all due respect, that the phrase “complicated human being” is redundant. We are all a bundle of contradictions; we are — all of us, if we’re honest — a bundle of failings and successes. When you are living life as big and as large as Franklin, [that’s] writ out, but that’s why their Greeks had their mythology, right, because Achilles had his heel and his hubris to go along with his great strength. So you just incorporate that. I do remember early on in the film, H.W. Brands said, he [Franklin] only had two years of formal education, so he didn’t know what he didn’t have to know; he just assumed he had to know everything, and that made him a lifelong learner. And that’s the genius here. It’s the genius of the founding fathers: “The pursuit of happiness” is not the pursuit of material objects in the marketplace of things, it’s about lifelong learning, they all felt that. The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of improvement in a marketplace of ideas. And Franklin has that embodied in everything. So yes, he is a man of his time, but that’s no excuse whatsoever. But that man of his time did outgrow many of [his] prejudices. To me, it’s an interesting evolution.
And I think of the scholar Erica Dunbar in the film, [who says Franklin] saw which way the wind was blowing in Pennsylvania, and he got on the right side at the end of his life. She’s not purely cynical — he got on the right side, it’s a good side to get on. It’s very complicated, but so is it right now. We judge our politicians on the presumption of perfection, and it will never happen, and so they will perpetually disappoint us, but the whole notion of politics, discredited in our time, is a noble thing, of trying to figure out compromise, of trying to get things done.
Did anything really surprise you about Franklin while you were making this film and doing this research?
Everything, everything. Because as I said, you don’t go in because you go “Aha, there’s Franklin, now let’s tell a story about him.” It’s like, how much can we learn? So the reason why it takes years — 10 and a half years for our Vietnam film — the reason why it takes years for this is because we immerse ourselves in this, and then we’re leaving tons out. We’re right now in the middle of [the maple production] season up here; it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And that is a pretty apt comparison to the films we’re making. We’ve got 40 times the material; it’s essential to collect that much in order to find that one gallon of maple syrup, and our cutting room floor is not filled with bad stuff, it’s filled with great, great stuff.
Though you said you don’t think about modern events while you are making your films, what can modern viewers learn or take away from Franklin’s story, in your view?
I think just that civics isn’t a bad word, that working together [isn’t a bad thing]. As Franklin talked about, and Walter Isaacson says towards the end of the film, compromise doesn’t make great heroes, but it makes great democracies. With the Junto, that original club [Franklin] started in Philadelphia, the Leather Apron [Club] folks, they discussed ideas and felt that they weren’t the province of just the very, very rich. They were about making a joint that would last for centuries in a piece of wood — you shave a little bit off here and a little bit off there, that’s how it gets done. And from talking about buying a firetruck in Walpole, New Hampshire, to a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill in Washington, it’s the same process, and it’s only hijacked by idealogues and for those who are just partisan — my way or the highway. Nothing works that way.
But I don’t make films for Democrats or Republicans, I make films for Americans. And while I have my own politics, and periodically I’ll share them, I’m not interested in putting them in my films. I’m interested in just having complicated conversations. We just finished a film that will be out in the fall on the U.S. and the Holocaust. A lot of the reason we’ve done it is that we’ve been asked so many things over the years when we did World War II [The War] and when we did The Roosevelts and other times, why won’t we take this on? The Holocaust appears there. It’s like, what about this ship that was turned away? What about bombing the rail lines at Auschwitz? There’s 20 minutes of bombing the rail lines at Auschwitz in this film, whether you should or shouldn’t. And nothing in the filmmakers’ presentation suggests one thing or the other, it just says, “Here’s the set of things: What would happen if you did, what would happen if you didn’t do it.”
I did want to ask about that film. You’ve said The U.S. and the Holocaust is “the most important film” you’ll ever work on. Can you explain why that is?
Well, I don’t know why, I just sort of feel it. I’ve worked on important stuff like The Civil War and things, but this event is considered the kind of nadir of human activity, and to try to parse it from an American point of view, but also escape that point of a view, was a huge, huge multi-year challenge. You just have a sense. You can talk about this subject or that subject, but it doesn’t get any more urgent in terms of what the human project is, what the human project can be and the ways in which the human project sabotages itself.
Zooming out a little bit, you’ve made documentary films for PBS, which has publicly available editorial and funding standards, for decades. What do you think about the current boom in nonfiction content powered in part by streamers, and where it is taking documentaries?
You know, it’s funny, we all thought in the mid-’80s, “This is the golden age.” The New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote a big piece in I think ’85, like “It’s so great, here’s Ken Burns’ film on Huey Long, here’s Sherman’s March,” which was a self-referential film made by Ross McElwee, “here’s another film made by Frederick Wiseman, here’s Michael Moore,” all of this sort of stuff going, and of course it’s a thousand times that now. And it’s been polluted by reality television, which is, of course, not: No one proposes in front of millions of people, and no one eats bugs in front of them, it’s not reality television, but there’s lots and lots and lots of unbelievable stuff and opportunities, which I just think is terrific. And I stay with public television, because PBS, the “P” is obviously public, but the “S” is not system, it’s “service.” And that’s hugely important. And the fact that they have always been committed to the films living in schools. It’s nice to know that The Civil War, which came out 32 years ago, is seen every day in hundreds of schools across the country — not the whole thing, but 20 minutes here on Black troops or 20 minutes there on states’ rights, or something on Lincoln, this just thrills me and that’s not the only film that’s in rotation, it’s terrific. So I love all the other stuff that’s going on, and I also like being constrained by the editorial balance that PBS presumes and demands and the lack of interference, right? We have lots of funders, but they can’t cross the line, and you can’t have the subject of your film be a producer or an executive producer, you know what I mean?
I mean, look, I moved up here to this farmhouse that I’m in 43 years ago because I assumed, being a documentary filmmaker on PBS, focusing on American history, was taking a vow of anonymity and poverty. I’m glad to say that hasn’t happened, but I’m still sleeping in the same bedroom, I’m still in the same house. That’s what I like about it. I don’t work for PBS, I work for myself, and they can decide to show it or not show it. Fortunately they’ve decided to show the films that I’ve made. But it’s all about trying to tell really complicated stories about us. I make films about the U.S., but I also make films about us. And there’s an intimacy to them that I think people get drawn to, it’s about the emotional depth of it but also the hugeness, the bigness of the United States, the complications of it and the contradictions of it and the controversies of it. That’s what I’m interested in.
Wynton Marsalis, the jazz great, in our Jazz film at one point, he said, “Sometimes the thing and the opposite of the thing are true at the same time.” I thought what he said, and this was mid-’90s, when he said that, it was like a punch in my stomach. I said, “That’s it. That’s what it is.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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