Correction: An earlier version of this review misreported the name of the company that produced "Civil War: The Untold Story." It is produced and directed by Great Divide Pictures. This review has been updated.
In addition to his deep dives into American history, it seems the filmmaker Ken Burns possesses a knack for telling contemporary stories in brief, elegant microcosm.
In his moving new documentary “The Address,” airing Tuesday night on PBS stations, Burns and his cameras travel to the small Greenwood School in Putney, Vt. — an all-male boarding and day school with 50 students, ages 11 to 17, who struggle with language and reading skills as well as a host of behavioral challenges.
In a rite of passage since the school opened in 1978, Greenwood assigns its boys to memorize and then publicly deliver the hallowed 272 words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of Nov. 19, 1863 (“Four score and seven years ago ...”). What might seem a fairly simple task for some kids is extraordinarily daunting for many of these boys.
Their issues should be familiar to anyone who has been around teenage boys or ever seen one slip through the educational system. They have dyslexia and attention-deficit and speech disorders. To that, add occasional problems with anger control and social anxiety.
As “The Address” observes during the winter of 2012-13, it takes the boys several weeks of working with their dedicated teachers — word by word, sentence by sentence — even to reach a point where they declare themselves ready to recite Lincoln’s words. Some get discouraged and decide to wait another year.
Those who attempt the address have to pass an audition in front of their headmaster. Those who make it will then give the address at an annual formal dinner attended by their parents and teachers. If they get through it without a mistake, they earn a coveted coin from the school.
Watching “The Address,” one is reminded of how little we ever see of the highs and lows in the reticent world of teenage boys; even with all the TV shows filled with fictional angst and the newscasts filled with the real-life perils of bullying and outbursts of school violence, Greenwood’s boys are a fascinating and inspiring study in the fragility and strength of everyday adolescence.
As documentary subjects, the boys are in many ways impenetrable. Getting them to ignore the camera and just be themselves is next to impossible, but there are revealing, achingly honest moments that make the film worth watching.
Burns leans heavily on the obvious narrative arc — which of the boys will be able to earn Gettysburg coins? And because he’s Ken Burns, maker of “The Civil War,” “The Dust Bowl” and the forthcoming “The Roosevelts” (to name only a few), there is an obligatory attempt to graft Gettysburg’s significance onto the lives of these 21st-century boys. (Good luck with that.)
Although Burns zooms in more deeply on the stories of a handful of students, he’s also too magnanimous with this project, trying to put each of Greenwood’s students on camera — giving “The Address” a rushed and even disorganized feeling.
But “The Address” is meant to be a short film from a filmmaker more comfortable in the six- or seven-part epic. Since his reputation as a historical documentarian is plenty secure, it would be good to see Burns try more films like “The Address,” sharpening his gift for observing the present-day world.
When the Greenwood students don their sports coats and ties and take the stage one by one, you’ll find yourself holding your breath and brimming with pride as Lincoln’s words ring with a surprisingly new clarity.
Sesquicentennial fatigue is a real problem, particularly where Civil War documentaries and public television are involved.
I won’t pretend to have watched all five parts of “Civil War: The Untold Story,” which begins airing Monday on WHUT, but I did put it on while multi-tasking (don’t get upset; I do the same with Bravo’s “Real Housewives” shows) and measured how often it lured me back — frequently enough, it turned out.
Narrated by Elizabeth McGovern (“Downton Abbey”) and made by Great Divide Pictures, “The Untold Story” is worth a look for its tendency to zig where so many others have zagged, focusing on a contextual history of slavery in the United States and the importance of battles that took place between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, far west of the usual tourist destinations in Civil War land.
Part one, “Bloody Shiloh,” follows an untested Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s struggle to secure a Union foothold on the southern Tennessee border; further episodes explore battles at Vicksburg, Miss., Chickamauga Creek (a.k.a. “the River of Death”) and Atlanta.
Woven into this is a mindfulness of how the war’s effects can still be felt today in race and Southern identity. Like all Civil War documentaries, “The Untold Story” leans heavily on academics to do the talking, but they’re not the usual crop of author/professors, and their insights are fresh and occasionally fascinating.
(90 minutes) airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT.
(one hour, first of five parts) begins Monday at 10 p.m. on WHUT.