Philadelphia Daily News

Ken Burns spent years hoping someone would make "The Address." An intimate, uplifting film about a Vermont boarding school for students with learning disabilities for whom memorizing and reciting Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address" is a rite of passage, "The Address" -- airing 9 p.m. tonight on PBS; check local listings -- struck Burns ("Baseball," "The War") as a great idea -- for someone else.

"They asked me about 10 years ago to be a judge" at the school’s annual competition, said Burns, who lives and works in New Hampshire, not far from the Greenwood School, in Putney, Vt.

"And I went and I just wept like a baby. And I said, ‘Oh, someone should make a film of this.’ But it’s (a style of filmmaking that’s) not what I do. Each year, I tried to come back. If I couldn’t make the judging, I could come back while they were studying it," Burns said.

"I’d talk to (the students) about the significance of the address and was a judge in the years that my schedule permitted, and finally just realized that the 150th (anniversary of Lincoln’s Nov. 19, 1863, speech) was coming, and I’d already stretched some muscles with ‘The Central Park Five,’ stylistically," he said, referring to the Peabody Award-winning documentary he made with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon.

"Why couldn’t I do this? And so we embedded ourselves for three months with these boys and covered it soup to nuts, from waking up to going to sleep, to all the classes in between," he said.

The school educates boys with a wide range of learning differences, from dyslexia to autism. The film highlights many of their individual struggles, which range from the act of memorization to coping with speech impediments.

"Greenwood has this sort of special sauce of understanding the power of focusing, as they do so intently, across many different platforms and disciplines, on the ‘Gettysburg Address’ and giving them the satisfaction of accomplishment. Because we meet alums 10, 20, 30 years out who are still memorizing, doing well in life, and come back to Greenwood and feel like this was their ‘new birth of freedom,’ " said Burns, who also arranged for a school trip to Gettysburg, where he led a tour.

The filmmaker was a sucker for Lincoln’s famous speech long before visiting Greenwood.

"My daughter (Sarah) once gave me a gift at Christmastime when she was 12 of the ‘Gettysburg Address,’ perfectly memorized. It’s still the greatest present I’ve ever received and I’ll start crying if I talk about it too much," he said, laughing.