Ken Burns, the Voice of the Wilderness





On a perfect August afternoon, some of the nation’s wealthiest and most philanthropically generous citizens gathered on the porch of David Rockefeller Jr.’s home here, but neither the crowd nor the view of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean was the attraction. Instead they had come to grab (they hoped) a few minutes of chitchat with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who for the occasion had reluctantly put on a blue blazer to go with his ever-present jeans.

In recent years Mr. Burns, whose patented blend of original photographs, celebrity readings and articulate historians has captivated the television documentary audience with programs like “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “Jazz,” has suffered some setbacks. His last project, with Lynn Novick, the 15-hour 2007 World War II history “The War,” received a couple of particularly dismissive reviews, and he has lost his guaranteed financing from the struggling General Motors, forcing him to spend more time hustling for support...

... PBS has high expectations for Mr. Burns’s new 12-hour film, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” which begins Sept. 27, and which prompted the August cocktail. Financially challenged public television stations want him to visit their towns as a draw for major donors. The National Park Service is hoping that the new film will inspire more visitors and has prepared dozens of tie-in events across the country. And philanthropic groups like the National Park Foundation (of which David Rockefeller Jr. is vice chairman emeritus), the National Parks Conservation Association and Friends of Acadia, a sponsor of the August event, are using him to raise the profile for their own causes.

Ten years in the making, the new film, while not a travelogue, is an unabashed love letter, with its backdrop of spectacular vistas filmed in 53 national parks.

It had its beginning when Dayton Duncan, an author who was the national press secretary for Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign (and is Mr. Burns’s best friend and frequent collaborator), was appointed to the National Park Foundation board and was pondering how to contribute...

... Of his travels, he acknowledged: “There’s an evangelical dimension to it. People ask me what I like. I like shooting; I like getting up at 3 a.m. and getting out with the camera and getting out and filming; I like that moment in the edit room where the removal of something or the addition of something or the rearranging of something makes it better. And then I love the proselytizing.”

That is a good deal of his appeal, said Judith Goldstein, a historian who appears in the film and whose private Somes Pond Center was one of the sponsors of the Rockefeller event. When Mr. Burns and Mr. Duncan discussed the film in Bar Harbor, she said, “People were almost more touched by their language, by the things they had to say about the film, than by the film itself.” She added, “It’s very rare that filmmakers are as articulate.”...

As powerful a pull as similar projects may be — he is updating his “Baseball” series, investigating Prohibition and profiling the two President Roosevelts next — Mr. Burns is working on one film that raised many eyebrows when he discussed it in Maine: a re-examination of the 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park jogger....




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