Aside from the “Ken Burns Effect”—the documentarian’s trademark slow pan and scan and pullback on a still photograph to give it cinematic life—you’d have to say that the distinguishing characteristic of a Ken Burns documentary is the impact it has. He does his homework, scouring the archives, museums and repositories so that every one of his films shows audiences something they’ve never seen before, changes the way they think about history, or hear facts they’ve never heard before.
Burns’ first claim to fame came in 1990 with his meticulous recounting of “The Civil War.” Then came “Baseball” (1994), “Jazz” (2001), “The War” (2007), “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” (2009), “Prohibition” (2011), “The Dust Bowl” (2012), and “The Central Park Five” (2012). And just when you thought that Burns couldn’t get any better, along comes “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”
The star of this series isn’t Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or even Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s the vintage materials, and Burns has unearthed a remarkable amount of movie footage for this interconnected history of one of America’s most famous political families—Republican on the Oyster Bay side, and Democratic on the Hyde Park side. But the two presidents and activist first lady have more in common than those party differences, as Burns reminds us at the start of each of the seven hour-long episodes:
Before the names Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin were indelibly etched into the American consciousness and the course of human history was forever changed by their individual endeavors, a prominent family made a point of teaching the value of altruism, the power of perseverance, and the virtue of helping out one’s fellow man.
Part history and part biography (because their lives were so entwined with world events), “The Roosevelts: an Intimate History” is one of the best things that Ken Burns has done—and, given his track record, that’s saying something. The only stumbles come during prolonged narrations of the three deaths, which come across like the Burns’ equivalent of a bad actor overplaying a death scene by gasping, stumbling here and there, grasping his heart, and finally collapsing.
But even that’s to be forgiven, since Teddy Roosevelt was the most popular man in America at the time of his death, while FDR was so beloved after being elected to an unprecedented fourth term that his funeral train and funeral procession passed by throngs of crying Americans, and Eleanor Roosevelt had risen to become the matriarch of the Democratic party—a woman who wasn’t just indispensible to her husband, but forged on after his death as the first chairman of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, where she stood up to the Soviets. No wonder John F. Kennedy sought her blessing after he won his party’s nomination for president. She was like the Godmother of progressive politics in America, a tireless champion of causes she convinced people weren’t entirely lost.
Rather than trace each life separately, Burns takes a chronological approach, and that serves to emphasize the family relationships (often negative) and helps viewers to see the historical events in context. Burns is an obvious admirer of all three, but “The Roosevelts” is no whitewash. FDR’s indiscretions are covered, as are Eleanor’s female pals (though Burns does skirt the issue of her suspected bi-sexuality) and T.R.’s reckless and self-serving sides. Insights and ironies abound, and often Burns will refer back to previous moments in the Roosevelts’ lives—as when he reports that Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the former president’s oldest son, led a contingency at D-Day and posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery and leadership—something his father unsuccessfully sought for himself following his famous charge up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders.
What you thought you knew about these three famous figures is often challenged, and there’s striking footage to make the point—as when we’re told that Eleanor traveled the country on fact-finding missions for her polio-crippled husband, even going deep into a mineshaft to see firsthand the hardships that America’s miners faced. There’s footage of her in the shaft, wearing a helmet. And there’s footage of her on her tour of the war zones, which Admiral “Bull” Halsey objected to . . . until he saw her in action. When she inspects, she inspects, he said, and she took the time to shake the hand of every soldier she met in the infirmary—even those who were so horribly disfigured that she was deeply and forever disturbed by what she saw.
The run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor doesn’t get the kind of full political treatment that would emphasize what de-classified documents have told us—that the U.S. pushed Japan into an economic corner so they’d attack and then a reluctant population would back America’s entry into the war—and that’s the closest Burns comes to a whitewash. Otherwise “The Roosevelts” tells a frank and frankly inspiring story of three Americans who shaped America for generations to come.
Often it’s the details that delight, as when we see a copy of the “Day of Infamy” speech and notice that FDR originally wrote “a day that will live in world history” . . . but crossed out “world history” and substituted “infamy.”
Others may be struck by the bitter opposition that FDR and his family drew from Republicans, despite the fact that the entire country was behind Roosevelt 100 percent. There were nasty personal attacks, attempts to block his legislation in Congress, charges of “socialism,” and a conservative court that struck down program after program. The criticism was so bad that during WWII, in which all of the Roosevelt sons served, one of them is shown on camera receiving a medal and saying something like, “I seriously hope one of us gets killed, so they’ll stop picking on the rest of us.” Or rather, we hear a voiceover of an actor reading a diary entry or letter, as occurs throughout this documentary—a tough job, actually, since the actual voices of all three Roosevelts are heard on camera many times. If the voiceovers are convincing, thank Burns for going right to the top of the Actor’s Guild. Meryl Streep does a fantastic job as Eleanor, while Edward Herrmann is equally convincing as FDR and Paul Giamatti holds his own as Teddy.
The set is handsomely packaged in a seven-disc set, housed in two oversized Blu-ray cases and tucked into a sturdy cardboard slipcase.
Episode 1: Get Action (1858-1901)—A frail, asthmatic young Theodore Roosevelt transforms himself into a vigorous champion of the strenuous life, survives the loss of one great love and finds another, leads men into battle and then rises like a rocket to become the youngest president in American history at 42. Meanwhile, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, brought up as the pampered only child of adoring parents, follows his older cousin’s career with worshipful fascination and begins to think he might one day follow in his footsteps.
Episode 2: In the Arena (1901-1910—Murder brings Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency but in the seven years that follow he transforms the office and makes himself perhaps the bst-loved of all the men who ever lived in the White House—battling corporate greed and building the Panama Canal, preserving American wilderness, carrying the message of American might around the World. FDR courts and wins Eleanor Roosevelt, the shy orphaned daughter of Theodore Roosevelt’s alcoholic brother, Elliott. Together they begin a family and Franklin enters a law firm, but when he is offered a chance to run for the New York state senate he jumps at the chance—after making sure his Republican cousin has no objection to his running as a Democrat.
Episode 3: The Fire of Life (1910-1919)—Theodore Roosevelt leads a Progressive crusade that splits his own party, undertakes a deadly expedition into the South American jungle, campaigns for American entry into World War I, and is made to pay a terrible personal price. Franklin masters wartime Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy while Eleanor finds personal salvation in war work. Her discovery of Franklin’s romance with another woman transforms their marriage into a largely political partnership. TR’s death at 60 is almost universally mourned, but it also provides Franklin with a golden opportunity.
Episode 4: The Storm (1920-1933)—Franklin Roosevelt runs for Vice President in 1920 and seems assured of a still brighter future until polio devastates him the following summer. He spends seven years struggling without success to walk again, while Eleanor builds a personal and political life of her own. FDR returns to politics in 1928 and, as Governor of New York, acts with such vigor and imagination during the first years of the Great Depression that the Democrats turn to him as their presidential nominee in 1932. He survives an attempted assassination as president-elect and at his inauguration tells his frightened countrymen the only thing they have to fear is “fear itself.”
Episode 5: The Rising Road (1933-1939)—FDR brings the same optimism and energy to the White House that his cousin Theodore displayed. Aimed at ending the Depression, his sweeping New Deal restores the people’s self-confidence and transforms the relationship between them and their government. Eleanor rejects the traditional role of first lady, becomes her husband’s liberal conscience and a sometimes controversial political force in her own right. As the decade ends, FDR faces two grave questions: whether to run for an unprecedented third term and how to deal with the rise of Hitler.
Episode 6: The Common Cause (1939-1944)—FDR shatters the third-term tradition, struggles to prepare a reluctant country to enter World War II, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor helps set the course toward Allied victory. Meanwhile, Eleanor struggles to keep New Deal reforms alive in wartime and travels the Pacific to comfort wounded servicemen. Diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 1943 and with the War still raging, FDR resolves to conceal his condition and run for a fourth term.
Episode 7: A Strong and Active Faith (1944-1962)—Frail and failing but determined to see the War through to victory, FDR wins re-election and begins planning for a peaceful postwar world. But a cerebral hemorrhage kills him at 63. After her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt proves herself a shrewd politician and a skilled negotiator in her own right, as well as a champion of civil rights and the United Nations. When she dies in 1962 she is mourned everywhere as the First Lady of the World.
There’s so much vintage material that, apart from biographers and historians interviewed and a few present-day location shots, viewers are treated to a practically non-stop archival ride. Some of the black-and-white footage is amazingly clear and sharp, while others are streaked, flecked with dirt, or disfigured by emulsion and melted segments. Overall, though the quality of archival materials is quite astounding, and it’s worth getting in Blu-ray. “The Roosevelts” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, “enhanced” for 16×9 televisions.
When the war segments kick in, you really get an immersive experience. Sometimes, though, there’s an abrupt stoppage and you wonder if the Blu-ray has frozen in playback, when really there’s just an odd gap before the next segment appears. But the bass has real rumble and presence, and the treble and midtones are clear and bright. The featured audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with an option in Spanish Stereo 2.0 and described video. Subtitles are in English and Spanish SDH (for the deaf and hard of hearing).
There are a wealth of bonus features, including a “making of” feature, hordes of deleted scenes (too many to count) with an intro from Burns, and 13 bonus videos that Burns apparently secured the reproduction rights to, but couldn’t fit them into the film.
There’s some graphic footage of corpses and very brief nudity, but everything is handled tastefully enough to where the episodes could be watched in schools, or by whole families. Yet this documentary isn’t watered down or sanitized. It’s a fascinating study of three pivotal figures in American history, and an inspirational one at that. One person who probably ought to watch this is President Obama, who might feel less martyred seeing what the Roosevelts had to put up with, and yet still accomplished great things. Among FDR’s lasting achievements were The Social Security Act, The G.I. Bill, the National Labor Relations Act (which established the federal rights of workers to unionize and strike), and The United Nations.
“The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” begins airing on PBS on Sunday, September 14. It will be released on Blu-ray two days later.