In Burns' new two-part four-hour documentary, "Burns felt 'obligated to tell all the facets' of Franklin’s life—from the famous kite to attempts to capture runaway slaves," says Craig Bruce Smith. "And it shows. Taking a middle-ground approach, the two-part documentary offers a complicated Franklin full of 'concealed contradictions.' Burns’ version is a symbol of the Enlightenment and of Revolutionary liberty, but also a deeply flawed father, husband, and man. What a difference twenty years makes. The last time PBS released a documentary on Franklin was in 2002. It opened with a sponsor’s glowing message of praise 'celebrating the wisdom and ingenuity of one of America’s most distinguished founding fathers.' Franklin and his achievements were celebrated. It took three hours for the film to make any mention of Franklin and slavery. Burns’ version does so within three minutes." As Smith, notes Franklin "has so many faces: the author, the printer, the scientist, the diplomat, the inventor, the revolutionary, the champion of education, the abolitionist, and the founder....The themes of contradiction, compromise, self-improvement, and self-reflection structure the film. It’s a smart and effective way to manage the various interpretations and effectively blend more than two centuries of historical writing."
There’s a delineation between younger and older generations of talking heads in Benjamin Franklin: Led by Walter Isaacson "and his ilk," the second group "lead with well-researched yet probably familiar details, whether they’re fleshing out the story of the kite and key or breaking down Franklin’s wooing of French support for the American cause," says Daniel Fienberg. "None of these historians is worshipful, but they’re definitely Franklin enthusiasts, albeit rarely excitedly so. It’s impossible to watch four hours of Benjamin Franklin without respecting his autodidactic scientific brilliance, his cleverness and the unmissable stamp he put on the wet concrete of America. It’s left for the women and people of color — chiefly Christopher Brown, Erica Dunbar and Stacy Schiff — to be the voices of partial dissent, not as harsh critics of Franklin, but as clear-eyed observers of all the situations in which his ideals either fell short or were myopic. Yes, he was a man of his time, but there were men of his time who found their American voice earlier, who recognized the humanity of the country’s Black and Indigenous peoples sooner, whose respect for women matched their love for them. The back-and-forth between those two groups with their assigned roles becomes a rhythm as entrenched as the inevitable reliance on Peter Coyote’s narration, visuals driven by paintings and portraits from the period, bland bridging reenactments and a score that barely changes whether the stories being told relate to the invention of the glass armonica, the death of a loved one, or high-stakes espionage."
Benjamin Franklin shows us how the Founding Father shaped our world: "Ken Burns is cinema's foremost chronicler of American history, and thus it was only a matter of time before he turned his attention to the astounding life of the country’s iconic founding father," says Nick Schager. "Benjamin Franklin is a celebration of a man whose creations were so numerous and world-changing, whose ideas were so revolutionary, and whose legacy is so monumental that revisiting them is apt to make one feel downright unambitious by comparison. Yet at the core of Burns’ latest PBS documentary is a sense of Franklin as not only a genius, but as a flesh-and-blood, self-made individual who was as accessible and relatable as his achievements were momentous. He was an everyman who was also an extraordinary titan, and therefore rightly considered, both then and now, one of the greatest—if not the greatest—of all Americans."
Why Ken Burns wanted to capture Benjamin Franklin in all his complexities: “All of our attention in this period quite correctly is on a Jefferson, on a Washington, on an Adams, on a Madison, and lately on a Hamilton," he says. “But Franklin is on the $100 bill because he’s about striving to lift yourself up. His story is so fundamentally American in lots of really good and really bad ways that it is, to me, irresistible.” Burns adds: “We can understand Franklin Roosevelt or Muhammad Ali a little better because we feel like we can reach out and touch them. The challenge here was to make someone from the 18th century come alive in a way that has dimension, has flaws.”