ON a perfect August afternoon, some of the nation's wealthiest and most philanthropically generous citizens gathered on the porch of David Rockefeller Jr.'s home here, but neither the crowd nor the view of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean was the attraction. Instead they had come to grab (they hoped) a few minutes of chitchat with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who for the occasion had reluctantly put on a blue blazer to go with his ever-present jeans.
In recent years Mr. Burns, whose patented blend of original photographs, celebrity readings and articulate historians has captivated the television documentary audience with programs like "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz," has suffered some setbacks. His last project, with Lynn Novick, the 15-hour 2007 World War II history "The War," received a couple of particularly dismissive reviews, and he has lost his guaranteed financing from the struggling General Motors, forcing him to spend more time hustling for support.
None of that seems to matter to his fans, whose ardor has only increased. ("The War" drew PBS's largest audience in a decade.) And that celebrity is particularly crucial to a broad list of groups that need him more than ever.
PBS has high expectations for Mr. Burns's new 12-hour film, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," which begins Sept. 27, and which prompted the August cocktail. [Portland Local Listing KOPDT 710 Sun, Sep 27 8:00 PM]
Financially challenged public television stations want him to visit their towns as a draw for major donors. The National Park Service is hoping that the new film will inspire more visitors and has prepared dozens of tie-in events across the country. And philanthropic groups like the National Park Foundation (of which David Rockefeller Jr. is vice chairman emeritus), the National Parks Conservation Association and Friends of Acadia, a sponsor of the August event, are using him to raise the profile for their own causes.
A view of Grand Teton National Park, from “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” a new 12-hour documentary film made by Ken Burns.
Ten years in the making, the new film, while not a travelogue, is an unabashed love letter, with its backdrop of spectacular vistas filmed in 53 national parks.
It had its beginning when Dayton Duncan, an author who was the national press secretary for Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign (and is Mr. Burns's best friend and frequent collaborator), was appointed to the National Park Foundation board and was pondering how to contribute.
Mr. Duncan, who appears in the film and wrote a companion book with Mr. Burns, frequently chokes up when discussing the project. The film covers a wide scope, from the inspirational writings of the naturalist John Muir in the 1800s up through 1980. It tells the multiple stories, Mr. Duncan said, of "an individual, a small group of people, an organization who fell in love with a place so deeply that they dedicated themselves to finally convince the government over a long struggle that it should be set aside for everyone."
The Grand Canyon, Mr. Burns said, is "the most obvious thing to be a national park," and yet it took decades to make it so, given the special interests that wanted it for other uses. "In each place," he added, "there's great conflict and drama and unbelievable characters and great scenery."
But the film's broadcast is merely the most visible centerpiece of myriad related initiatives. For the last year Mr. Burns has, by his estimate, been away from his New Hampshire home for 110 days, hopscotching the country as part of a $6 million promotional campaign.
In one August week Mr. Burns, 55, flew from a meeting with television critics in Los Angeles to a station event in Cleveland, and then drove some 1,800 miles for several days of promotional activities, with 6,000 people coming out to hear him in Chautauqua, N.Y.; 1,200 in Bar Harbor, Me.; and 1,500 in Portland.
In between he recorded promotional spots, posed for tourist pictures snapped by Mr. Duncan and went to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park at 4:45 a.m. to watch the country's first sunrise for CBS cameras.
Of his travels, he acknowledged: "There's an evangelical dimension to it. People ask me what I like. I like shooting; I like getting up at 3 a.m. and getting out with the camera and getting out and filming; I like that moment in the edit room where the removal of something or the addition of something or the rearranging of something makes it better. And then I love the proselytizing."
That is a good deal of his appeal, said Judith Goldstein, a historian who appears in the film and whose private Somes Pond Center was one of the sponsors of the Rockefeller event. When Mr. Burns and Mr. Duncan discussed the film in Bar Harbor, she said, "People were almost more touched by their language, by the things they had to say about the film, than by the film itself." She added, "It's very rare that filmmakers are as articulate."
Mr. Burns "was cutting-edge once, and now he's traditional," Ms. Goldstein said, but his fans, of which she is one, appreciate that "these films are partly talking head but also a kind of wonderful deference to those who mattered in the past."
Not all the critics agree. The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin, for one, called "The War" "tedious"; Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times faulted it for ignoring voices that happened not to be American.
But that didn't discourage viewers. The program reached 37.8 million people in its first run, according to Nielsen numbers provided by PBS.
Mr. Burns admitted to the Portland audience that he has "made the same film over and over again," one with a single theme at its core: "Who are we?"
In an interview, he said, "I think 90 percent of the reason that people like these films is that we treat them like they're smart." He said he has resigned himself to the negative reviews, which he attributed partly to his work's lack of irony.
"Irony is a protective armor that substitutes sometimes for the experience of real emotion," he said. "It's easy to dismiss huge swaths of a complicated American polity because they are unironic."
As powerful a pull as similar projects may be — he is updating his "Baseball" series, investigating Prohibition and profiling the two President Roosevelts next — Mr. Burns is working on one film that raised many eyebrows when he discussed it in Maine: a re-examination of the 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park jogger.
The five men originally convicted and imprisoned were released in 2002 after another man confessed. Mr. Burns, who has already found financing from Atlantic Philanthropies, said he became interested in the men's story after his daughter interned at a law firm handling a suit on their behalf.
The subject is hardly historic, but Mr. Burns says he has found a way to make it so. He sees parallels between "the Central Park Five," as he calls them, and the so-called Scottsboro Boys, charged in a 1931 rape case that eventually led to a Supreme Court ruling on the racial makeup of juries.
But first there is "America's Best Idea" to promote. So on Sept. 26, National Public Lands Day, there will be screenings in national parks across the country and one on the Ellipse in Washington. And on Sept. 23 there will be an evening preview in the East Meadow of Central Park, accompanied by performances from Carole King, Eric Benet, Gavin DeGraw, Jose Feliciano, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and Counting Crows. It will be beamed to PBS stations nationwide for them to show to supporters.