L.A, 2022-04-05 12:55:04. Benjamin Franklin’s new document offers a deep dive into US history
There is something comforting about Ken Burns documentaries on PBS that take on topics that predate the video, because the filmmaker, unlike most of the industry, eschews dramatic reenactments in favor of a low-tech approach. Enter Benjamin Franklin, four hours dedicated to the founding father, depicting all aspects of a man who has been described as “the most famous American in the world” during his era.
Inventor, jeweler and publisher. A reluctant revolutionary. Slave owner, and then abolished the death penalty. diplomat. and a father to a boy who remained loyal to the British crown during the war, causing a rift between them.
Franklin was all of these things, as he enlisted many historians to highlight him. As summarized by Joseph Ellis, Franklin was “a scholar of Nobel’s caliber, the greatest prose designer of his generation, and perhaps the greatest diplomat in American history.”
Burns has remained remarkably prolific, including last year’s multi-part productions on Ernest Hemingway and Muhammad Ali. However, Benjamin Franklin aligns with his earlier work by emphasizing sound before consideration, 32 years after Burns’ groundbreaking Civil War created the mould.
In fact, Burns’ work for PBS represents one of the most recognizable brands in the documentary film format. To that end, there’s the always lavish Peter Coyote novel, while Mandy Patinkin reads Franklin’s words, with others, including Josh Lucas and Liam Neeson, lending their voices to additional main characters. In an especially nice touch, Paul Giamatti stands as John Adams — whose diplomatic style has made him the opposite of social Franklin — 14 years after he was portrayed on the HBO series.
The first part covers Franklin’s previous life, and builds towards the beginning of the American Revolution, which accounts for the majority of the second part. This includes Franklin’s pivotal efforts to secure France’s support, as well as his somewhat exaggerated reputation for being a ladies’ man during this position.
The level of detail from Burns and writer Dayton Duncan is impressive, as usual, from Franklin’s small but important amendments to the Declaration of Independence (adding “self-evident”) to his lament for his son William, “that you see everything through the eyes of government.” And, of course, there is Franklin’s often quoted line after the Constitutional Convention when he asked what kind of government they formed, and he reportedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Burns has always been adept, particularly in promotional appearances, at relating history to the present, and despite some controversy over its credibility, the disclaimer attributed to Franklin has echoed loudly recently. Benjamin Franklin may not be as flashy as some of Burns’ other work, but like all of them, he’s still a keeper.
“Benjamin Franklin” will air April 4-5 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.
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