“There has been lots of stuff done on national parks,” Burns says from inside a gorgeous lodge on the shores of Swiftcurrent Lake in Montana’s Glacier National Park, “but they have been travelogues -- where to stay, flora and fauna. This is a more complicated human drama. We want to tell you about the ideas and individuals [who] made these national parks happen. That for the first time in human history -- and it happened to happen in our country -- people decided to set aside land not for the privileges of kings, noblemen, or the rich but for everybody for all time. Sounds sort of obvious now, but it wasn’t.”
And with that, Burns is off and running for his next heroic docudrama, the latest volume in his nearly 30-year career, which is sizing up not unlike that 32-volume Encyclopædia Britannica set in your childhood home that stood as the go-to source for everything when you were young. Since his Academy Award–nominated 1981 documentary Brooklyn Bridge, Burns has spearheaded an unparalleled collection of historical documentaries that reshape the way we view our history, hours and hours at a time.
He took on The Civil War in 1990 (which is now the highest-rated series in the history of American Public Television), Baseball in 1994 (now the most-watched series in PBS’s history), and Jazz in 2001. Infused in between were epic digs into the lives of Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jackie Robinson, and Lewis and Clark, among others. In 2007, World War II got the treatment. Simply titled The War, the film was a comprehensive tale of conflict told through personal accounts of some 40 men and women from four prototypical American towns.
Burns’s historical documentaries have been compared to Mozart symphonies and probably could all but replace textbooks in American-history classrooms. Yet on this path to becoming the most important documentary filmmaker in the history of the medium, Burns hasn’t rewritten history even once but rather has put a fresh coat of paint on America’s past, telling its riveting story along the way with Jackson Pollock–ian strokes of random narrative beauty otherwise lost in the grand scheme of our collective historical brushstrokes. His art, however, owes its roots to a much deeper and more personal place than historical fascination.
“My mother had cancer my whole life and died when I was 11 -- I don’t even remember a moment when she wasn’t just sick but dying,” Burns recalls. “It set an incredibly difficult and tragic tone for our family. After she died, my father set a very strict curfew for my younger brother and me, but he always forgave it if a good movie was on TV or at the cinema guild. I remember staying up until two a.m. watching old movies on a school night, and it was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. He didn’t even cry at my mother’s funeral, but he cried at movies, and I began to understand their power.”
But the power of film comes much easier on the side of fiction, on Hollywood blockbusters that weave elaborate tales of shock and intrigue and love and loss through high-tech special-effects machines. These films spit out an escape from everyday life like a bottle of whiskey and a perfect sunset do. But everyday life is precisely where Burns excels -- in the nonfiction ring, where, when retelling the past, there are no surprise endings, no previously unknown shocking betrayals, no twists of fate. But Burns takes what we think we already know and spins it into something we don’t, captivating us along the way like no reality show ever could. It’s a maudlin tale for Burns himself, but he credits his mother’s death as his seminal inspiration.
“I realized in my early 40s that in some ways, I had never truly put my mother to rest,” he says. “I was magically keeping her alive in my imagination. When I had birthday cakes as a young boy, there was only one wish, an impossible wish. I confided this to a friend, [who then] said, ‘What do you think you do for a living? You wake the dead. You make Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln and Louis Armstrong come alive -- who do you think you are really trying to wake up?’ It’s sort of dime-store psychology, but good history is waking the dead. Good history means even though you know how it turns out, you sit on the edge of your seat thinking that this time it will be different -- that when Lincoln goes to Ford’s Theatre, it’s not going to turn out the way it did, or maybe that Lewis and Clark won’t get back safely. In the case of history, if you tell a story well, people’s attention is riveted on whether it turns out like they know it did. That’s part of the mystery of bringing the past alive.”