Ken Burns's The Address (PBS, 9 p.m. tonight) is just unusual enough that I wish it were better, but it's still so unusual — peculiar, even — that I'm recommending it. The advertising imagery suggests it's a film about the meaning of the Gettysburg Address, a 272-word passage in American politics that's arguably the piece of writing that most defines the U.S. Civil War. This is a subject tailor-made for Burns, who broke through to national prominence with his PBS miniseries The Civil War and went on to become public TV's virtual Smithsonian institution, curating our historical memory for us, with and without fiddle music.
The Address, however, features none of the oft-parodied Burns storytelling techniques. It's really a documentary about the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, which houses 50 boys ages 11 to 17 who have various learning disabilities, including dyslexia, dysgraphia, executive function, and ADHD. With help from teachers, administrators, and advisors, the boys try to overcome their problems in order to memorize the Gettysburg Address. This is apparently a tradition at the school. The documentary genuflects in the direction of the "ticking clock" genre by telling us how many weeks are left until all the boys have to recite the Address, but its tone is unhurried to the point of being relaxed. Even though the story of the kids and the school is sometimes interrupted by factoids about President Lincoln's most famous bit of writing and the historical circumstances that birthed it — backed with music and voice-over narration performed by the students — the titular paragraph is just an excuse to tell us about the students' learning disabilities, what they mean in everyday terms, and what can be done to manage them.
Along the way we also get lots of fly-on-the-wall scenes of the teachers working with the kids and zeroing in on their own distinct difficulties. One boy has trouble keeping focused. Another stumbles over particular words or phrases. Another seems fixated on his version of order, is annoyed that the Gettysburg Address doesn't fit it, points to a particularly irksome phrase, and asks the teacher, "Why can't you just switch it around?" If you have a friend or family member with a disability, you already know a lot of what The Address has to say, but if you've been untouched by this particular set of challenges, this might be an eye-opening primer. A school therapist tells us that for many of these kids, memorizing and accurately reciting 272 words is "the ultimate, difficult thing."
The Address is also Burns's loosest documentary in a long while. Eschewing the minimalistic formal control he usually brings to every topic — a toolkit of shots, cuts, and music cues as tight and regimented as Stanley Kubrick's or Wes Anderson's — he takes a 1960s observer approach, watching kids from far away with a zoom lens as they do their work. There are some wonderful caught moments, including a mini-montage of the kids snowboarding and sledding, and a cutaway from two kids studying the Address that reveals the underside of the desk, where one boy's sock feet are nervously swinging. The movie feels too long, padded even, but its relaxed vibe and non-cloying tone are a tonic.