Posts Tagged ‘ken burns’


In 1939 Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and Martha Sharp, a social worker, received a call from Everett Baker asking them to help Jewish refugees in the Sudetenland.  17 other people refused the call from Baker, but on February 4th 1939, they left their young children behind and headed to Prague Czechoslovakia.  They made contact with the Unitarian church in Czechoslovakia and its leader Norbert Capek and learned how to destroy documents and launder money.  In March 1939, Martha helped an unknown refugee called Mr. X escape Prague.  Waitstill not only arranged for the Jews’ release, but also laundered money, so that they would have means when they left Czechoslovakia.  The Gestapo soon learned of the Sharps’ work, and came after them, they escaped Czechoslovakia, and went to the United States on the Queen Mary, just as France and England declared war on Germany. In 1940, the Sharps were summoned back to Europe from Fredrick Elliot, President of the Unitarian Association.  So again, despite Martha’s objections, they went back to Europe, this time to Portugal to rescue refugees from France.  They negotiated a large shipment of powdered milk to hungry children and started to get refugees out of France.  They helped Jewish writer Lion Feutwanger escape from a French concentration camp, and come to the U.S.  At this point Martha stayed in France to help children of Jewish refugees.  All told, the Sharps saved about 20,000 Jews from the Nazi aggression in Europe, but the time apart took a toll on their marriage. In June 2006, the nation of Israel awarded the Sharps the Righteous of the Nations, an honor only bestowed on five other Americans.

This documentary is an exhilarating yet ultimately sad story about two people who lived their religion so thoroughly that they sacrificed their comfortable suburban lives to rush headlong into a European continent heading inexorably toward war.  The exhilaration comes from knowing that people still believe so faithfully in God that they are strong enough to look evil in the eye, and still do what is right.  The train rides and ship rides that the couple takes with the refugees are harrowing, yet thrilling. The sadness arises from the fact that they could not find personal happiness with each other. Hollywood would have put a happy ending on this story, but real life is much more intriguing. It’s all the more heartbreaking when the viewers hear the couple’s love letters to each other.  But even more riveting than the Sharps’ personal story are the interviews with the refugees that the Sharps saved.  Many of them were kids at the time, and they are amazed that people with no personal stake in their future saved them from certain death.  It’s a mixture of joy and sorrow watching these people speak, joy that they are alive, sorrow that man’s inhumanity to his fellow man can reach such epic proportions.   I’ve seen many WW II and Nazi era stories, but this documentary proves that there are still more stories of extraordinary courage that remain to be told.

Tom Hanks adds an earnest emotional strength to this documentary that is evident from the beginning of the film.  Hanks’ voice somehow suits Waitstill Sharp, upstanding, honest, earnest, heartbroken, all these qualities come through Hanks’ voice, and the documentary is better for it.  Little known actress Marina Goldman stars as Martha Sharp.  There are no other voiceovers in the film.

This is a typical Ken Burns documentary, still photos, voiceovers, historians, and a compelling story that cries out to be told.  These are the hallmarks of a Ken Burns documentary. The film starts out with a collage of Nazi atrocities, book, burning, Kristallnacht, and Hitler speaking to rapturously cheering crowds, this collage captures the interest of the viewer immediately, and holds it.  Ken  Burns had help directing this movie, Artemis Joukowski,  the Sharps’ grandson actually co-directed with Burns and did all the interviews with the refugees and historians. Joukowski’s involvement in  the film makes the story seem more personal and the emotions more intense.

The Sharps’ War:  Never dull.

jackie robinson

Part 1

Jackie Robinson (Jamie Foxx voiceover) was born in 1919, in Cairo Georgia.  In 1920, after his father left the family, his mother moved the family to Pasadena.  Jack’s brother Mack was a member of Jesse Owens relay team.  Jackie was also good in sports, basketball, football in high school.  He went to UCLA and became a four sport star. In his senior year, he met his future wife Rachel, but quit college just before graduating, to work in an integrated football league.  In the spring of 1942, Jackie was drafted and applied for officer candidate school.  He was initially rejected. But with Joe Lewis’ help, he was accepted, and became a second lieutenant. But in 1944, he was charged for insubordination for not moving to the back of an Army bus, and cursing a soldier.  He was found not guilty, but asked for and received an honorable discharge.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were hapless, owner Branch Rickey shook up the team got rid of high priced stars, and promised to integrate baseball.  Toward that end, he asked scouts to scout the Negro Leagues.  After the Army, he made the KC Monarchs, and a friend in the Army said that the Boston Red Sox were holding tryouts, nothing came of the tryouts with the Red Sox, but newspaper reporter Wendell Smith mentioned Jackie’s name to Dodgers scouts, and he was sent to the Dodgers Triple A system in Montreal.  He found living in Montreal easier than living in the US but still faced racism in places like Florida when he went on the road.  He won the Minor League World Series in 1946, and was called up to the Dodgers in 1947.  Dixie Walker a Dodger from Alabama circulated a petition around the clubhouse asking Dodger players not to play with Robinson, Branch Rickey and Leo Durocher quashed the petition, a rumored strike against Robinson by Major league ballplayers never materialized, and Robinson led the Dodgers to the World Series in 1947, while winning Rookie of the Year.

This was a thorough and comprehensive documentary of Jackie Robinson’s life and early years in baseball.  The producers (Ken Burns’ daughter Sarah, and her husband David McMahon along with Burns) go to great lengths to interview, baseball players, scouts and because Robinson’s impact went beyond sports, they also interviewed President and Mrs. Obama, and entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte.  They explain who Dodgers owner Branch Rickey was and his motives for integration, they were not all altruistic. It also goes into some depth about the friendship that developed between black newspaper reporter Wendell Smith and Jackie Robinson.  Smith became, promoter, friend and confidante to Robinson, and helped him get to the Dodgers, when he had all but given up.

Two things that struck me were how much Rachel and Jackie loved each other and how that bond help him through the tough times, and how virulent and overt racism was in the 1940’s not only in the South but also in California. Jackie Robinson actively fought back against this racism, and so it was an open question whether he could keep his mouth closed when taunted by fans, players and managers. He did stay quiet for two years.  Two of the most touching stories in Part 1 of this documentary are stories about an ordinary Brooklyn Dodgers fan and his parents, and news anchor Tom Brokaw and his father. Watch for them.

Part 2:

In 1949, Branch Rickey took the muzzle off of Jackie Robinson, and so he was free to argue with umpires and players, and so he did.  He also had one of his best years as a player in 1949.  Robinson started battling health issues like diabetes, but won a World Series in 1955 with the Dodgers.  In 1957, because of failing health and diminishing skill, Robinson retired, but before he could retire, the Dodgers traded him to the Giants.  He expected to be named manager of the Triple A Dodger team, but wasn’t.

Instead he became an entrepreneur, becoming a Vice President at Choc Full-o-Nuts in 1957.  In 1959, he started writing a wide-ranging column for the New York Post, where he wrote not only about sports, but also about politics.  In 1960, his political involvement deepened Robinson supported Richard Nixon over JFK, because he was disappointed in Kennedy’s tepid stance on Civil Rights.  In July 1962, Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but his life involved much more than baseball by that time. Robinson became a more vocal supporter of the Civil Rights movement, in August 1962, he flew to Albany Georgia at the request of Martin Luther King, Jr.  after churches there were burned down, in spite of death threats.  In 1963 he raised money for jailed protectors in Birmingham, and in August of that year. he and his family took part in the March on Washington. In 1964, he started working for Nelson Rockefeller, after the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater.  Robinson came back to his entrepreneurial roots, he founded Freedom Bank in Harlem in 1964 to provide low income people with loans and mortgages.

His busy post-baseball life led to tumultuousness at home.  His oldest son Jackie Jr. became involved in drugs, marijuana at first, and then heroin after a stint in Vietnam.  Jackie sent his son to rehab, and just when it seemed Jackie Jr. had turned a corner, tragedy struck.  Jackie died not long after his son’s tragedy, in 1972, of a heart attack, he was only 53.

This was the harder part of Jackie Robinson’s story to watch, because with every success, reality interrupted.  He won the MVP in 1949, but the fans started to turn on him, because he started pressing baseball for more black players.  Even after a few years of massive success in baseball he would still get death threats. He was hired at Chock Full O Nuts, but never hired as a baseball manager.  He looked for a house in Connecticut, but no one would show his family a house until Carly Simon’s mother stepped in. He supported Nixon early on, only to be ignored by him later. The increased radicalization within the Civil Rights movement, later in Robinson’s life, left him open to criticism of being out of touch with the rapidly changing black community.  And all the work to move Civil Rights forward took a toll on his home life. His son’s addiction, and subsequent rehab is heartbreaking to watch.  Jackie’s neglect of his own health is also heartbreaking to watch, he died at 53, but looked much older.

This documentary is an incredible record of a man, who never stopped trying to move himself and his country forward.  He was a strong believer in integration and non-violence.  His baseball career was legendary, but his life after baseball only made the legend grow.  Many thanks to the Burns family, and the Robinson family, for creating this intimate portrait of this very complex man.

Jackie Robinson: Another home run for Ken Burns


Episode 1: Get Action

The early lives of Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor.

Documentarian extraordinaire Ken Burns once again makes compelling television by using seemingly simplistic filmmaking techniques.  But the interplay of still pictures, mournful music, and voice over narration makes for a dramatic telling of the lives of three political giants. What makes this story so compelling is the revelations of the most intimate Roosevelt family secrets.

Teddy Roosevelt began life as an asthmatic, not exactly the barrel chested rough and read hero he would later become. Get Action was an admonition from TR’s father not to waste a moment of his life, so Teddy become a perpetual motion machine, and approached everything with the boundless energy he became famous for.  TR lost his father at an early age, then got married, only to lose his first wife and mother on the same day. Teddy’s brother and Eleanor’s father spent his short life drinking and carousing before being committed to a sanitarium.

FDR began life as a pampered and much loved child of an older father, he had a rough life in prep school and college. Despite all these personal hurdles and maybe because of them, they kept an unflappable positive spirit and rallied people to their side.  Burns’ superior storytelling ability illustrates all sides of this almost Shakespearian tale, and the viewer can only be enthralled.

Episode 2:  In the Arena:

Teddy Roosevelt becomes President after the McKinley assassination. FDR meets and marries distant cousin Eleanor.

Teddy Roosevelt was a complex man, a wealthy man, whose instincts lead him to protect the little man. He went up against JP Morgan to break up the Northern Securities railroad, he was responsible for settling the Anthracite Coal Strike, he campaigned for the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspectors Act which all became law.

Some say he had an imperialist foreign policy, his brutal treatment of the people in the Philippines and backing of the Panamanians against Columbia would seem to support this assertion.  He believed that the US should control all the countries in the Western Hemisphere, this is called the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.  Despite his imperialist tendencies Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War.

Burns is careful to not whitewash the legacy of TR.  He presents Roosevelt’s shortcomings as well as his laudatory moments. The aforementioned imperialism is a blot on his record, as is his civil rights record. He’s the first President to host a black man, Booker T Washington in the White House, but later in his presidency he disbanded a black regiment of soldiers for allegedly rioting in a Texas town.

He deeply mourned the death of his first wife Alice, and his oldest daughter, also named Alice was a bit of a wild child, who felt neglected.

Cousin Franklin was blackballed in college, spurned by his first girlfriend, met and married his cousin Eleanor.  Eleanor was rejected by her mother because if her looks, idolized her father who was an alcoholic, and died at the age of 34.  Eleanor found her self-confidence in a boarding school in London. Eleanor felt controlled by her mother-in-law who decorated her New York house with Franklin.  She threw herself into volunteer work with the immigrants of New York, and lost her third child as a baby, she blamed herself for the loss of the child.

Burns also does an excellent job of intermingling the three lives, Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor.  They are all giants , and it’s interesting to see Franklin, and Eleanor in their insecure youth.


Episode 3:  The Fire of Life

Teddy runs for president again in 1912, and loses.  Franklin begins his political ascent.  Eleanor learns to become a dutiful political wife.

What becomes eminently clear in this portion of the lives of Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor is that their lives are filled with pain.  Teddy is so acutely aware that he ended his political career early that he runs again as a Bull Moose and loses.  Then, unable to keep his energies at bay, Teddy goes to the Amazon, catches malaria and almost dies, then he starts pushing Woodrow Wilson to get involved in WW I.  By this time FDR is Assistant Navy Secretary.  Teddy first tires to enlist in WW I, and then gets his sons involved with tragic consequences.  Meanwhile, Eleanor has to deal with tragedy of her own. Teddy dies at the age of 60.  The only one seemingly immune to the pain around him is Franklin, who is a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Ken Burns is such a good storyteller that this documentary is a riveting and emotional experience, that doesn’t seem self-evident in a political documentary, but the subheading of this documentary is An Intimate History, and it is the intimacy that draws the viewer in, and makes for entertaining and interesting viewing.


Episode 4: The Storm

FDR contracts polio, runs for governor of NY in 1928, runs for President in 1932.  Eleanor develops her own political legacy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt experienced a charmed life until August 11, 1921, when he developed polio.  The horror that is polio is terrifyingly illustrated.  When FDR first contracted it, local doctors could not even diagnose what was wrong with him. Doctors finally diagnosed what was wrong with FDR, and he spent a lot of time away from his wife and kids, first with his mother, and then with his secretary Missy Lehand.  The children are devastated by having an absentee father.  The rehabilitation effort is herculean, but  there was no overall change in his condition by 1923. The viewers hear from his doctors, and his children to get the full effect of his illness. FDR somehow wills himself to make a nominating speech for Al Smith, and then incredibly FDR replaces Smith as governor of New York, which begins a rivalry between Smith and FDR.

In 1924, FDR went to Warm Springs Georgia for the first time and the natural springs there seemed to soothe the aches from his polio, he wanted to build a resort there, but it turned out to be a place where other polio victims or disabled people in general could come and relax.  Roosevelt found it relaxing too, he could soak in the water, ambulate without his braces and just relax.  He had found an oasis from his hectic life and later turned it into a rehabilitation center.  Ken Burns shows a picturesque shot of one spot, and the viewer can see why Roosevelt loved it so much.

Eleanor also began to establish political networks, which would enrich and edify her whole life.  She joined the League of Women Voters, she took on Tammany Hall boss Charles Murphy over women delegates to the 1924 Democratic Convention and won, the women got to pick the delegates and not Murphy.  And Eleanor and her female politicos, built a retreat at Val Kill, and she felt comfortable there to learn and grow.

There is also a rivalry growing between the Republican Roosevelts and the Democratic Roosevelts.  Teddy Jr.  doesn’t care much for Franklin, and Eleanor goes out of her way to destroy Teddy Jr during the Teapot Dome scandal.

All of these aspects of the Roosevelt story, are covered in searing and soaring detail by Burns, when the viewer hears about Franklin’s polio, it’s a crushing blow, when the viewer sees Franklin fighting to walk and become a political figures again, the viewer can’t help but be buoyed by it.  The viewer is encouraged by Eleanor’s story as well, she was judged early on for her looks, but she became the hero of many dispossessed women.  If the Franklin Roosevelt story was a fictional one no one would believe it, and yet it’s true and expertly told by Burns.


Episode 5:  The Rising Road

FDR’s New Deal programs begin to take effect and Hitler rises to power in Germany.

There is not much intimacy in this episode.  Burns does touch on the relationship between Daisy Suckley and FDR, but he describes the relationship as an intense friendship and doesn’t speculate as others have, that the two were engaged in an affair.  Burns does show how powerful radio was as a tool in the 30’s, and how expertly FDR uses it.  His fireside chats galvanized public opinion to reinvest in the banks, and reinforced the idea that FDR was on the side of the common man.  Hearing those speeches and fireside chats are still riveting.  Seeing that old footage of FDR speaking is still powerful.  If it doesn’t move you, you cannot be moved.

The administration still banned footage of FDR in a wheelchair or trying to walk, and the press went along with it.  Today’s tabloids would have a field day with his disability and the country would not be better off.

Burns also chronicles the excesses of FDR’s administration, like his attempt to pack the Supreme Court with judges more amenable to FDR’s policies. He was roundly criticized for meddling in the checks and balances set forth in the Constitution and lost much of his mandate, in the end, the Supreme Court did approve Social Security and the National Labor Relations Board.  FDR won a second term easily.

Eleanor did not like the glare of the public spotlight, but continued to accrue power of her own, she wrote a daily column, called My Day, continued to criticize the Republican branch of her family for their cheap shots of Franklin, and continued to advise Franklin on how to make his New Deal programs more effective.  Burns illustrates the complexity of these people superbly.

Episode 6:  The Common Cause

FDR mulls entering WWII, Eleanor continues her push for reform.

FDR’s biggest job at this time was to convince a war-weary and isolationist country that entry into WWII was a necessity. At the same time, he was non-committal about running for a third term.  FDR won a third term over Wendell Wilkie by promising to stay out of WWII.  The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 finished off isolationism once and for all.

In the run up to the war, Roosevelt lost his secretary Missy Lehand to a stroke, and his mother to a heart attack.  FDR transformed the military into a modern military in a manner of years, and largely gave up on New Deal programs.

Eleanor lost her brother during this time, but would not be silenced in her quest for social justice.  She continued to push for integrated troops, and after the war started, she visited the troops.  The move was opposed by the Republicans and the General in charge, but the General’s mind was changed when he saw Eleanor’s tireless work with the soldiers, she asked every soldier if they wanted to write home.  She wrote every member of the troops that she visited.  She also pushed FDR for an end to the Japanese internment camps.  Eleanor also tried and failed to allow more Jewish refugees into America while the Holocaust was going on.

At the age of 62, in 1943, at the urging of his daughter, FDR went to see a doctor, he had congestive heart disease.  Everyone was sworn to secrecy, and the war planning went on as usual.

The revelations in this episode were stunning.  Ken Burns has put together a masterpiece.

Episode 7: A Strong and Active Faith

With his health failing and FDR losing weight, FDR surrounded himself with women, who were ready to follow his every whim.  Former girlfriend  Lucy Rutherfurd, FDR’s daughter Anna, and adoring cousin Daisy Suckley gave FDR the unconditional love that FDR got first from his mother.  Anna kept the meetings between her father and Lucy Rutherfurd a secret from her mother.  When Eleanor found out that Franklin was meeting Lucy in secret, she was devastated,

FDR’s health continued to decline, Stalin, and Churchill were shocked to see how emaciated Franklin was.  Despite his flagging  health, he won re-election and passed the GI Bill in 1944.  On April 12, 1945, Frankin Delano Roosevelt died from a cerebral hemorrhage,  Eleanor continued to be a force in liberal politics until the 1960’s.  She passed away in 1962.

Burns’ the Rossevelts is an epic historical documentary, the interweaving of flawless historical research and  incredibly personal revelations, make this documentary required watching for any history buff or anyone interested in the greatest political dynasty of our time. This is undoubtedly Burns’ best documentary since his  groundbreaking Civil War documentary.


the address

The Greenwood School in Putney Vermont is a boys boarding school that specializes in teaching kids with learning disabilities, specifically dyslexia, a difficulty to read, dysgraphia, a difficulty in writing, and ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  The school takes a holistic approach to teaching the kids, intense speech therapy, intense occupational therapy, music classic and woodshop.  The Greenwood school does something that makes it unique, it asks the boys to memorize and recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  The boys from Middle School and high school who recite the Gettysburg Address the best wins the Greenwood Coin, a status symbol from the school to the winners.

Let me say that I thoroughly enjoy Ken Burns.  He has a unique documentary style that no one else can copy.  It’s his own, and that style has made him famous.  The still pictures, the voice over narration, the evocative music, it is all part of a Ken Burns documentary.  The music especially is so emotional, sometimes sad, sometimes jaunty, always stirring.  This documentary was a departure, and not always in a good way, the boys are surly, and difficult to get emotionally involved with, the music seems cheap and misplaced, and it’ becomes more about the school, and not the Gettysburg Address.  It’s hard to explain the importance of the Gettysburg Address to any middle school or high school boy, never mind a boy with learning disabilities, they learned the words, they learned the meaning of the words, but did they learn the historical significance of the words?  I doubt it.  On the contrary, I think memorizing the words may have put an undue amount of pressure on these kids, and enhanced their frustration.  God bless those teachers who go through an emotional roller coaster every day to find the talents of these kids and bring them out.  That’s where the focus of this documentary should be, but that’s the problem with this documentary, it should either focus on the kids, the teachers, or the address, it does none of that.  Instead it meanders from the teachers, to the students to the address, without being about any of these.

The Address tries to evoke memories of the Civil War documentary by letting the kids narrate scenes about the Gettysburg Address from the Civil War documentary, but it seems like a cheap copy of a groundbreaking documentary.  But to the larger question of whether memorizing The Gettysburg Address helps kids with learning disabilities is an open question.  I think that intensive study of anything, music, dance, public speaking, will undoubtedly help kids with learning disabilities gain confidence, but tying it to that speech in particular, was a stretch, and not worthy of Burns’ prodigious filmmaking talents.

The Address.  Unable to hold my interest