"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have little."
– Franklin Roosevelt
Wow! Not a particularly prophetic way to start any review, but a word that adequately describes my admiration for Ken Burns’ latest documentary via Florentine Films. The Roosevelts: was there ever a more influential American family? It’s a debatable question – one arguably confirmed in Burns’ superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014). Burns’ who not only has set the standard and perfected the style for all documentarian film makers in his 33 plus years of story-telling excellence has equally achieved what can only be described as an unprecedented historical biography on the nation’s most advantageous political dynasty. No president since has been able to lead the nation without first doffing his cap to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s incomparable legacy in the Oval Office: three plus terms as commander and chief, and, the arbitrator of America’s goodwill policy towards its fellow nations – or, at least those ready to fall in line with Franklin’s ambitious plans for expansion.
If only for this brief chapter in the Roosevelt family saga, Burns’ documentary would already have an embarrassment of riches to draw upon for its inspiration. But Burns, never content with merely doing the possible, has undertaken an even more monumental task: to tell the tales of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in tandem, seemingly without excising a single moment from this riveting human drama that gripped, transformed and penetrated the very fiber and fabric of America – the beautiful.
The Roosevelts are, to be sure, larger-than-life figures. Both in their own time and, in hindsight, they have left indelible marks on the American landscape. Long ago they ceased as human beings, becoming iconic representations of the American spirit, democracy, progress, forthrightness and treasured leadership in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds. It is one thing to recall this public legacy through a chronology of their vast achievements; beginning with the Panama Canal and ending with Civil Rights; quite another to concentrate on an exposé of the Roosevelts as imperfect creatures of flesh and blood.
What Ken Burns has done – miraculously – is to exemplify America’s most influential and flourishing family tree as a triage of benevolent/wounded visionaries of a reality they not only helped to foster, but lead by example; their broadminded perspectives on the America that just might be, able, with startling clairvoyance, to see very far and steadfast down the distant horizon of human history, and, even more incredibly, at a particular moment when the nation seemed to be suffering from its most myopic and isolationist worldview of any country on the map.
The likenesses of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor have been parodied so often in movies and on the stage these impressions have taken on a life of their own. And, in collecting his formidable data – both research and photographic – Ken Burns has managed to document with exacting precision the impetus and the crux of these beloved caricatures and clichés; Teddy’s great gleaming grin from under a handlebar moustache; Franklin’s easy-going charm with twinkling eyes behind round spectacles; Eleanor’s rather dowdy matron with that loveably goofy, jowl grimace that made her the pride and joy of editorial cartoonists. Ah, but what Burns gives us in his seven part opus magnum goes well beyond these romanticized portraits of grace under fire.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a truly blessed snapshot of a clan we only thought we knew; a glowing portrait obviously made by people who continue to be impacted and derive their inspiration from the enduring longevity of their memory and the superb testament each of these aforementioned three has left behind. Just as Theodore – a dyed in the wool Republican – had cast his giant shadow while he reigned in office, speaking softly and carrying his big stick, so too did Franklin – a devout Democrat -endeavor to lead the nation by his uncle’s example, with nothing to fear but fear itself.
It is one of history’s great ironies that F.D.R.’s own inheritance of this mantle has, in more recent times, obscured Theodore’s monumental accomplishments. Fair enough, Teddy left office after his second term, still riding the crest of Presidential popularity at its zenith and frequently afforded all the amenities of a presiding official when and wherever he traveled abroad. Interestingly, both men were beloved in their own time, considered as irreplaceable cornerstones. At one point in Burns’ documentary, co-writing, commentator and polio sufferer, Geoffrey C. Ward comments he doesn’t believe a man like F.D.R. could be elected today. Ward’s contributions to Burns’ lengthy archive of painterly rich and textured documentaries cannot be underestimated. But on this outing he is particularly attuned and impassioned about the subject matter, so obviously close to his own heart.
Alas, his point herein is both heartfelt and well-taken. In an era when the press complied without fail to Franklin’s express wishes, never to be photographed while being carried to and from the various podiums where he delivered inspirational addresses to the nation, thus preserving his own dignity and reputation as a vibrant and fatherly political figure (near fully recovered from his bout with ‘the illness’), one could almost believe in the President as America’s real life ‘super hero.’
But Burns and Ward never shy away from the truth; that F.D.R. endured months of painful (and mostly fruitless) rehabilitation; that he took a lover, Lucy Mercer, in Eleanor’s absence and continued to see her secretly until the end of his days with the complicity of their eldest daughter; that he suffered from periodic bouts of depression abated only by his own stubborn refusal to give in; that he was slow – even sluggish – on actively pursuing a policy of procurement for civil rights. Even so, as is pointed out in Episode 7: A Strong and Active Faith, all the Roosevelts functioned under the most altruistic principles – advancing the nation in increments, determined their groundwork should stand, not only the test of their own time, but for all time. The courage necessary to triumph over the complete loss of mobility in the lower half of his extremities, to found an institution – Warm Springs – dedicated to the betterment of life for all those similarly afflicted, and the sheer guts and will power employed to portray that unwavering, ‘brave front’ to a nation desperately in need of just such a savior to believe in: it is this astonishing doggedness best recalled in Burns’ moving biography, exquisitely counterbalanced by a nation teetering on the brink of fiscal implosion and the even more foreboding gravitas of a hemisphere about to plunge into another global conflict.
Popularity alone does not a great presidency make. However, both Theodore and Franklin were very much of the same cultural mindset. Both men saw themselves as the salvation of their time. Each had fought through a physical infirmity; F.D.R.’s well publicized attack of polio chillingly documented in Episode 4: The Storm. But Theodore too had survived near paralytic and chronic asthma in his youth that, by his physician’s own accounts, ought to have left him bed-ridden and sickly for the rest of his days. And how, for example, does one recover from the sudden, startling loss of a beloved matriarch and his own wife, both taken from him in the span of a single day? No, Theodore Roosevelt was one hell of a man; unafraid, or perhaps, more pointedly, unwilling to be made afraid by things he knew absolutely nothing about. He once said that “if you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month.”
In hindsight, the parallels between T.R. and F.D.R. are one of the most captivating aspects brought out in Burns’ documentary. Both shared an unwavering solipsistic belief that if one had faith in themselves there was nothing that could not be accomplished in his own time. Each ran a parallel course in their purpose to extend the executive powers of government beyond the traditionalist perspectives as outlined in the U.S. constitution; to embrace, buttress and spur on the country’s hard-working immigrant class. Both were devoted to the cause of ensuring life for the poor and rising middle classes lived up to their own collective dreams for a brighter tomorrow. Finally, both Theodore and Franklin were men of action – non-determinists whose faith – repeatedly tested – only seemed to strengthen their resolve.
The, as yet, unsung heroine of the piece – at least, in this review – is Eleanor Roosevelt. Brought up by a strict and uncompromising mother, seemingly deprived of the necessary maternal warmth, and shattered by her husband’s infidelity with Lucy Mercer, a private secretary whom she too had once adored, Eleanor Roosevelt might have as easily shrank into obscurity and shied away from the limelight. Instead, she redoubled her efforts in a variety of causes, unencumbered by having to satisfy the popular polls, but always with F.D.R.’s best interests at heart. What Burns’ commentary helps to flesh out is, of course, that Eleanor was far more influential to F.D.R.’s Presidency than anyone might have supposed or even given her credit; pursuing the unpopular notion of integration and racial equality; also, equality between the sexes, and fostering an abiding love for the nation’s weary, downtrodden and struggling. When she elected to visit army hospitals on her husband’s behalf she did not, as is pointed out, merely step in for a brief hand shake and a few well-chosen publicity photographs with a select group of ‘cleaned-up’ patients, but went from bed to bed, committing the names of the wounded to memory, offering to get in touch with their families, to mail their letters back home and to pray for their swift recovery.
When, after Franklin’s death in 1945, Eleanor assumed the position as Chair of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, she did not simply regard it as a ceremonial post, but aggressively campaigned for, and was instrumental in drafting an international bill of rights, unanimously ratified by the delegates with a standing ovation. That document has since been regarded as the first progressive piece of legislation on the subject. Ostensibly, Burns documentary is about two men – both presidents in a time of need in America’s formative years of 20th century evolution. Yet, running like a connective artery from one man’s legacy to the other is Eleanor; beloved niece, devoted wife and mother. And Burns manages to maintain and express the complexity of these intersecting lives with a seemingly effortless ease. We never feel as though he’s ‘switching gears’ or hopping about this triumvirate of formidable presences, misguidedly represented as mere and iconoclastic do-gooders. No, Burns supreme contribution herein is that he manages to be devout, respectful, marginally in awe of his subjects and yet, always introspective about their contributions as well as their all too human foibles.
As with Ken Burns’ finest achievements, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is richly rewarding on a multitude of levels. It goes far beyond the superficial aspects and behind-the scenes successional theatrics between the Oyster Bay and Hyde Park factions of this oft’ warring clan of Dutch settlers. The Burns/Wade screenplay, with its omnipotent third person narration, once again magnificently orated by Peter Coyote, is as immeasurably blessed to have a superb roster of vocal talents presiding over its ‘second-hand’ accounts of the historical record; Meryl Streep – as Eleanor, Jerry Herrmann – long since the go-to man for recreations of F.D.R., Paul Giamatti as Theodore, Patricia Clarkson, Franklin’s devoted cousin, Daisy Suckley, and John Lithgow providing fill-in voices. This documentary is also fortunate to have the input of writer/political commentator, George Will; biographers, H.W. Brands, John Meacham and Blanche Wiesen Cook, and finally, historians, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough. It’s a class ‘A’ production from top to bottom, littered with thousands of still photographs, B&W newsreels and Kodachrome color footage, vocalized and contextualized with an overwhelming amount of never before shared correspondences between F.D.R. and Ms. Suckley, unearthed in a steamer trunk after her death, and some thoroughly fascinating and meditative hindsight - all of it tightly woven into a seamless 14 hour history painted with light.
“More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginning of all wars - yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between governments. Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”
– Franklin Roosevelt
The first three episodes in this series focus primarily on Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to power, although Franklin and Eleanor are never far behind. Episode 1: Get Action, spans the years from 1858 to 1901 and showcases Theodore’s prominence, his staunch outlook in the face of adversity and his passions – mainly hunting and politics – as a young man. We meet the opposing sides from Hyde Park and Oyster Bay and explore the Gilded Age, rife with America’s newly appointed aristocracy and the promise of untold wealth and prosperity. The Roosevelts truly were a new breed of people for a new era in America’s transformative years from frontier wilderness to industrialized nation. While addressing the assembly as New York’s governor, Teddy learns both his wife and mother have died within a 24 hr. span.
"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."
– Theodore Roosevelt
In Episode 2: In The Arena we follow Theodore’s ascendancy to the White House after the assassination of President McKinley. Covering a mere decade, from 1901-1910, the 26th president quickly takes on the corporate fat cats who helped get him elected; challenging their supremacy and dedicating himself to improved conditions for the working class. Teddy also becomes embroiled in the scheme to build the Panama Canal. While his testiness toward indigenous people is regrettable, at home, he is responsible for halting the rape of America’s natural resources by declaring several wilderness preserves still in existence today. In the background, Franklin courts, then weds Eleanor and begins to pursue a similar course in politics.
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
Episode 3: The Fire of Life charts Theodore’s pursuit to carve a legacy for his presidency from 1910 to 1919. It is a progressive crusade; one alienating the Republican Party. Nevertheless, the people adore Teddy’s zeal, enough to follow him into the fray of WWI. Franklin does his part as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but he also becomes involved with his private secretary; the relationship a blow to his marriage. As a result of Eleanor discovering the affair, Franklin and she begin to spend more and more time apart. Nevertheless, she remains devoted to his political ambitions – preserving his dignity and theirs as one of America’s most progressive couples. After retiring from public life, Theodore spends most of his time touring the world as a visiting dignitary. His tiring of President Taft’s leadership culminates in a fortuitous decision to return to politics. But only a few months before the race begins, Theodore Roosevelt dies in his sleep at the age of 60, leaving a nation shocked and saddened.
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”
– Franklin Roosevelt
Although compelling, in hindsight the first three episodes in the series are mere window-dressing for the epic adventure yet to unfold. Episode 4: The Storm is the bittersweet saga of Franklin’s fervent desire to overcome the hellish ravages of polio. After running for Vice President, his party losing the election, Franklin is stricken with crippling paralysis. His response is to embark upon the establishment of a recuperative clinic in Warm Springs, Georgia. Episode 5: The Rising Road covers Franklin’s first two terms in office from 1933 to the brink of WWII in 1939: his ‘New Deal’ for the American people pigeon-holed by the enactment of revolutionizing and far-reaching legislative measures in his first hundred days to stave off the paralytic effects of the Great Depression. We also explore his various attempts to move a largely isolationist country closer to the brink of committing America to the war.
“No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his well-being, to risk his body, to risk his life, in a great cause.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
In Episode 6: The Common Cause, the bombing of Pearl Harbor acts as a catalyst for America’s involvement in the global conflict. Roosevelt transforms the military – then, a remarkably anemic appendage – into a vast industrial complex; sending troops to Europe and elsewhere around the globe to confront and defeat the Nazi threat. On the home front, Eleanor embarks on an itinerary of her own politicized causes; many challenged and criticized by Franklin’s most zealous detractors in the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Eleanor’s exquisite fortitude, her dedication to stand-in as her husband’s emissary, as arguably no First Lady before or since ever has, wins her the respect of the nation.
“Probably the happiest period in life most frequently is in middle age, when the eager passions of youth are cooled, and the infirmities of age not yet begun; as we see that the shadows, which are at morning and evening so large, almost entirely disappear at midday.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Episode 7: A Strong and Active Faith, charts the post-Roosevelt era. Forced by his sense of duty to run for a fourth term, Franklin vows to see out the war through for his country. He is stricken with congestive heart failure and steady declines in health, dying on April 12, 1945, mere months before the final invasion of Europe. The thought-numbing funeral is followed by a call to action from his successor, Harry Truman who is also instrumental in easing Eleanor into a chair woman’s position within the United Nations. Taking her obligations very seriously, Eleanor proves every bit the leader her late husband would have wished. She eventually finds comfort in a new friendship with a young doctor and his wife, moving into their home and remaining active in President Kennedy’s early tenure in the White House, before dying in 1962 and later, buried beside Franklin.
PBS Home Video affords us another 1080i hi-def presentation. Aside: I am not exactly certain why PBS persists in not doing progressive hi-def scans. Overall, image quality is quite solid, although there are moments of video-based noise and some minor digital combing; also, grain structure during the newly recorded interviews is somewhat inconsistent, occasionally taking on the texture of video-based noise as well. As one might expect, the quality of the archival and newsreel footage is all over the place. One could choose to poo-poo the decision not to have a skilled digital restorationist go in and minimize all the dirt and scratches, but actually, in the case of a documentary, they seem to add a quality to the overall ‘historical’ flavor of the piece. I would have preferred some basic stabilization applied to some of this footage that is in very rough shape. But we won’t go down that road.
What we have is a good – if not great – video presentation and one that will surely not disappoint. The DTS 5.1 audio is more than adequate for this mostly dialogue-driven piece, also nicely showing off composer, David Cieri’s poignant underscore. Extras include a making-of featurette that also promotes some of the upcoming projects Ken Burns has in his hopper. There is a considerable amount of deleted scenes. These were edited out strictly for time constraints and yield and even richer historical record, sure to delight fellow historians and biographers. Bottom line: highly recommended!
“The truth is found when men are free to pursue it.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)