Ken Burns turns his attention to the Mayo Clinic

The Associated Press

After spearheading an epic, 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War, acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns has turned to more personal subject matter — one that knows him very intimately, too.

Burns tackles the famed Mayo Clinic in his next film, exploring the history of the innovative Rochester, Minnesota-based hospital that has been dubbed “The Miracle in a Cornfield.”

It has treated luminaries such as the Dalai Lama — and Burns.

The first time Burns went, he was immediately impressed by the level and detail of his medical care, like the patient was at the center, not the doctor. “I began to get curious about why this was so different from any other health care experience I’d had,” he said.

The result is the two-hour documentary “The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science,” which starts with the hospital’s birth during a tornado in 1883 and ends with the modern-day Mayo, state-of-the-art facilities over several campuses that treat up to 14,000 patients in 24 hours.

“The Mayo is just a quintessentially American story, just as baseball is a quintessentially American subject, as are the national parks, the Civil War,” Burns said.

The documentary — directed by Burns, Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers — features the voices of Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston and Blythe Danner, as well as familiar touches: Peter Coyote narrates, there’s rousing music by Aaron Copeland and Scott Joplin, and evocative slow-scans of old photographs known as “the Ken Burns effect.”

The film is part of a documentary film empire Burns has on tap.

Upcoming are works on the history of country music, Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution, as well as deep dives into crime and punishment in America and civil rights during President Lyndon Johnson.

“I’m plotted out to 2030 — God and funding willing,” he said with a laugh.

Burns has built a reputation for capturing sweeping historic moments with intimate details of peoples’ lives, tackling topics ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to baseball, from Mark Twain to jazz.

His films make the past come alive: Burns was once escorted out of an Alabama church by state troopers from people still upset by the Civil War’s outcome.

The Mayo film begins with the unusual collaboration by Dr. W.W. Mayo — “a doctor who worshipped Darwin,” Burns said — and a group of Franciscan nuns who began working with Mayo to help tornado victims in 1883.

The hospital adopted a salary-based model of teamwork — not based on ordering tests or a revolving door of patients — that is said to encourage innovation, time with patients and collaboration.

In the film, Tom Brokaw and John McCain endorse its methods.

Burns calls Mayo’s formula a “secret sauce” — one that also manages to have poor patients get free care — and hopes it can offer answers to America’s health care problems.

“We were making a film about the history the Mayo Clinic, but realized that in their story and in their example might be a way for us all to re-enter a conversation about the essential question: What do we owe each other in terms of taking care of each other?” he said.

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