Greetings again from the darkness. Ken Burns is renowned for his documentaries – two of my favorites are Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001). The power he wields is measured by his ability to get 14 hours of documentary not just researched and filmed, but also broadcast via PBS. Think how many Hollywood producers can’t get the green light for a 90 minute pet project. Mr. Burns is a national treasure who creates national treasures, and his latest is some of his finest work yet.
Focusing on one of the most prominent American family – one that dominated politics and history for years – the stories are presented in chronological order, interconnecting the biographies of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor with the key events in history that they helped shape. But it’s not all politics, as we also learn about the families and the individual make-up (flaws and all) of the 3 principals. We learn of the Republican Roosevelts of Oyster Bay and the Democrats of Hyde Park.
Mr. Burns has set the bar very high for his productions, yet somehow we still managed to be struck by the photographs, archival footage and insights of these people and the times. The sheer number of previously unseen photographs and footage is staggering. Add to that the commentary from writers and historians, and it’s easy to imagine this being the foundation for a high school or college history course … one that students would actually enjoy.
There are seven parts to the whole, each presented in chronological order:
Pt 1 Get Action 1858-1901. This segment focuses on a young, asthmatic Teddy as he overcompensates for his weakness by charging through every obstacle. We see the photo of young Teddy watching Abe Lincolns funeral procession pass 14th and Broadway. Teddy’s perpetual motion takes him to Harvard and the continued formation of his political views. His famous quote is remembered: “Not all Democrats are horse thieves, but all horse thievesn are democrats.” His way with words seemed to have no end. Teddy’s foundation seems a polar opposite to his 5th cousin Franklin, who is quite pampered as a child. The film displays the torturous February 14 when Teddy experienced the death of both his wife and mother. This segment takes us through the Rough Riders, San Juan Hill and the death of President McKinley.
Pt 2 In The Arena 1901-1910. Theodore Roosevelt takes charge as the youngest ever President and immediately begins to battle corporate greed, push for the Panama Canal, and preserve the American wilderness. We watch as FDR courts and then marries cousin Eleanor. This segment shows Teddy inviting Booker T Washington to dinner at the White House, the first African American to do so. We learn that when TR wasn’t speed-talking, he was speed-reading, taking in a book per day. He also became the first President to leave the country while in office, visiting the Panama Canal work site. At FDR’s wedding, Teddy was the one to give away Eleanor. Upon leaving office, TR takes his African trip with son Kermit.
Pt 3 The Fire of Life 1910-1919. The beginning of WWI and how TR campaigned to get the US to enter the war, while FDR was named Asst Secretary of the Navy, and served in the NY State Senate. The chasm between the Roosevelt clans – Oyster Bay vs Hyde Park – widens, as TR joins the Bull Moose Party, and is actually shot in the chest (and somehow continued giving his speech). TR took his Amazon Rainforest trip with Kermit and was stricken with malaria. It’s also in this segment that we begin to understand the most unusual relationship of FDR and Eleanor. She knew of his fondness for certain other women, and it’s in this time when the marriage transitions into a parnership. It’s also during this time that Theodore, age 60, dies in his sleep.
Pt 4 The Storm 1920-1933. The war ended, women could vote, and prohibition arrived. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke while in office, and it’s during this time that FDR is stricken with polio. We see and hear much of FDR’s struggle with the disease and how he worked to hide it, so as not to be seen as weak or limited. 1929 brought the New Deal speech and Eleanor begins her real politicking.
Pt 5 The Rising road 1933-39. The country is battling the Great Depression, and Eleanor’s actions create some controversy. FDR struggles with how best to deal with Hitler, while a quarter to one-third of the nation is unemployed. George Will’s commentary is especially effective here as he points our the two great crisis facing FDR: the depression and Hitler. The fireside chats (30 in 12 years) connect FDR to the citizenry and go far in establishing trust. It’s in this time that Eleanor’s friendship with a couple of other ladies (including Lorena Hickock) begins the questioning of her sexuality. FDR releases two huge pieces of legislation: The Wagner Act (NLRB, organized labor) and the Social Security Act. He delivers his “Ecomonmic Royalist” speech and talks about this generation’s “renedezvous with destiny“.
Pt 6 The Common Cause 1939-44. The preparation for WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor are discussed, but the controversy over the strategy is not really examined. FDR continues his close relationship with Missy (his secretary) and Daisy (his cousin). It’s mentioned that the right people are somehow in place during certain moments, and Churchill and FDR fit the description. Eleanor continues her work for the poor, blue collar and African Americans, while the preparation for war effectively ends the depression.
Pt 7 A Strong and Active Faith 1944-62. The plan for post-war peace is complicated by FDR’s cerebral hemorrhage, and during his record fourth term, he dies at age 63. The last hour or so really gives Eleanor her time in the spotlight and she works for Civil Rights, the UN, and against Joseph McCarthy (“our Gestapo”). We see her become the grand lady of the Democratic Party, and even meet with newly elected John Kennedy, though she did not support him. It took death at age 78 to slow her down.
The insight into the obstacles all 3 Roosevelts overcame is fasincating. We hear recordings of each, and the voice acting fills the gaps – Meryl Streep as Eleanor, Edward Herrmann as FDR, and Paul Giamatti as TR. Peter Coyote does a nice job throughout as the narrator, and numerous other actors are utilized through the production, including the final screen appearance of Eli Wallach. This is an incredible documentary covering some giants of US politics and some of the most historical events.
**NOTE: there are also photos and video of FDR’s speech at Ebbets Field, where he cracks about being a Dodgers fan, but never having attended a game there.
watch a PBS promo: