The Address is such a radical break for documentarian and PBS impresario Ken Burns that it can become slightly frustrating when it’s not even more of one. Burns, who hasn’t worked in the cinema verité style in some time, has crafted here an entire film shot in that style, the cameras unobtrusive, the lives of its subjects carefully observed. There are a handful of short scenes where the camera takes in a still photograph of some long-ago era in the United States, scored to melancholy fiddle, but every time the voices that would-be professional actors or even celebrities in other Burns projects pipe up to describe what viewers are looking at, it’s another reminder of how different this project is for the director. The voices are all of children, of young men, and their delivery is not that of a Sam Waterston or a Peter Coyote. They are halting, just as you’d expect from a teenager or preteen pressed into service on a documentary.
The promotional campaign around The Address has mostly focused on celebrities and other notables reciting the words to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which creates the idea that this might be a film specifically about the power of that short speech and how it still resonates in American culture to this day. While that might make a fine film for Burns someday, The Address is only incidentally about the speech, using it mostly as thematic commentary on the film’s true subject: a group of boys with learning disabilities who practice the speech over a period of several months at the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont. Once they’ve mastered it, they deliver it at a gala presentation, where teachers and parents and others come together to watch boys who struggle to read, write, and speak overcome those obstacles to present, one after the other, some of the most eloquent words ever written. It’s a rite of passage at Greenwood, and the boys are keenly anticipatory of it while also being petrified of not being able to handle it just yet.
Consequently, The Address is at its most powerful when it hangs back and observes day-to-day life at Greenwood and the way that the teachers and students interact as the kids struggle to at once understand and memorize this material. In an early scene, a teacher sits with her young charge to help him try to figure out just what the subject of the speech’s first sentence is, to strip away the “four score and seven years ago” and other clauses and phrases and get down to the word “fathers,” and it plays as well as this sort of thing can. It’s a staple of these sorts of films: the driven, caring, and immensely patient teacher who works to impart a concept that at first seems hopelessly abstract. When Burns fully immerses the viewer in these moments, the film resonates with Nicolas Philibert’s beautiful French documentary To Be And To Have, another movie that takes viewers inside the quiet lives of teachers and students.
The teachers end up resonating slightly more than the students here, for reasons that have more to do with the film’s running time than anything else. Working with just under 90 minutes, Burns is simply unable to make more than a handful of the many, many boys at the school into full-fledged figures within the world of the story, even as they are constantly identified by their names popping up alongside their visages when they exit and re-enter the film. The boy who makes the strongest impression is likely Ian, a 14-year-old who’s so fraught with worry and anger and fear that it sometimes seems as if the challenge to recite the Address will paralyze him. Burns tries to build several other arcs like this throughout the film, but it’s Ian who most stands out.
The teachers and the school’s speech pathologist end up being the movie’s strongest figures, as we watch them work with the students, over and over, to break down what the Address means and finally convey how to turn that meaning into knowledge the boys can use, not just to regurgitate the words in the correct order but to understand what meaning they have for the country and those who live in it. Burns can be guilty of trying to cram too much into his films, but he shows an admirable restraint throughout The Address. Rather than going in for frequent history lessons about the meaning of the speech, he understands that the audience will likely already know how important the speech was and get far more invested in the journey of the students.
The Address ultimately can’t nail its ending. As in many recent Burns projects, the depiction of the final presentation is undoubtedly affecting but also leans heavily on the schmaltz button (and the overbearing score), while the film’s final scene, which takes the boys to the actual battlefields of Gettysburg, doesn’t work. But so much of The Address accomplishes what it sets out to do and is so different from Burns’ typical work that it becomes a fascinating sidebar in his filmography. Here’s a man who’s done so much to expose television viewers to history as it was lived, taking a moment to let us see the way that history still trickles down to even the youngest of us today.
Written and directed by: Ken Burns
Debuts: Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on PBS
Format: Documentary feature