A two-part PBS documentary from filmmaker Ken Burns (pictured) exploring the life and work of American historical figure Benjamin Franklin has been slated for spring.
Benjamin Franklin will air on PBS in two parts on April 4 and 5, and stream on the PBS website and video app. Dayton Duncan (Country Music, The National Parks) wrote the film and David Schmidt (The Vietnam War) produced it with Burns.
The two-part documentary covers Franklin’s life as a scientist, inventor, writer, diplomat and signer of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Among other accomplishments, Franklin launched the first public library in the U.S., organized a volunteer fire company and founded an academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. His experiments with electricity led to the invention of the lightning rod, and his annual publication, Poor Richard’s Almanack, set a model for future humorists.
The documentary, billed during last summer’s PBS press tour as a “warts and all” look at Franklin, also includes the contradictions within his legacy, as he was committed to the ideals of Enlightenment, but enslaved people and did not become an abolitionist until late in life. Franklin’s newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, also advertised the sale of enslaved people and published notices of runaways. Franklin also championed the expansion of white settlements on Indigenous lands.
“Benjamin Franklin was a fascinating and complicated individual who helped shape our contemporary world,” Burns said in a statement.
“If we see him for more than his long list of accomplishments, we recognize an imperfect man challenging himself and his contemporaries as he tries to understand and improve the world around him. One of the best and most prolific writers of the 18th century, Franklin both embodies and documents the dynamic social, scientific and political changes of this revolutionary age. His story is one of hope, with a faith in the common man. But his shortcomings are also a reminder of this country’s failure to address slavery at the time of its founding and the racial divisions that continue to impact our country today.”
Schmidt added: “We have tried to present Franklin as a real person who lived a real life, separated from the myths that have followed him through time. His biography is uniquely primed to inform us of our history. His 70 years before signing the Declaration of Independence tell us about America before the United States, and in his last 15 years, he was central to bringing the United States into being.”
The documentary is a production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington D.C. The executive in charge for WETA is John F. Wilson. The two-parter was coproduced by Katy Haas and Craig Mellish, and associate produced by Emily Mosher. Mellish also edited the film, while Peter Coyote (Hemingway, Country Music, The Vietnam War) narrated the documentary.
Voice acting for the two-part documentary was provided by Mandy Patinkin as the voice of Franklin, along with Paul Giamatti, Liam Neeson, Carolyn McCormick, Josh Lucas, Joe Morton and Adam Arkin.
Interviews with leading scholars of early U.S. history are featured in Benjamin Franklin including with Franklin biographer, Walter Isaacson, who also served as a senior advisor to the project.