Ken Burns, over the course of a 35 year career, has made himself into a brand name. Apple even included a feature on their early iPods in which album covers would appear in slow, graceful close-up pans called simply the “Ken Burns Effect”. Family Guy parodied him hilariously, suggesting that his next project would be a 12 part series about road signs. And conservatives tend to dislike him because, basically, he talks about history and he’s on PBS.
Everyone knows Jazz, Baseball and The Civil War, all of which are essential viewing for students of American history and culture, even though they are all equally flawed and contain some errors and distortions. Where Burns errs, it is generally on the side of sentimentality and nostalgia for a sepia toned early 20th century America. One of my favourite films of his, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, uses tendency to great effect, contrasting the racial injustice of the day with the adventures possible in the first three decades of the 20th century. But for the most part he presents history with human personalities rather than proper names, emotional beats rather than dates and events and a slow, gentle, dignified pace, blending photos, period clips (when available), landscapes and talking heads. His style is hypnotic, and his filmmaking confident and skilled, a welcome difference from the ridiculously fevered and histrionic pieces on the History Channel or the Discovery Channel.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is a hefty slice of Burns, with seven two-hour segments comprising some 14 hours of viewing. It tells the story of the Roosevelts from roughly 1880 to 1965, with the three key family members being the charismatic Theodore, his favourite niece Eleanor and their fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The impact of these three figures on American history can hardly be overstated: 14 hours is just barely enough to speak to their influence over their times and their legacy today. The sheer historical scope means that Burns is able to touch on some of the topics of his previous films, such as the Civil War, World War II, the rise of radio, the Panama Canal, Prohibition, the National Parks (which Teddy created) and the Dust Bowl. But here it’s all seen through the eyes of the Roosevelts and their experience, which adds a different sort of twist.
Theodore, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were all fascinating people who achieved things far beyond what anyone would have thought possible. Teddy was a sickly child, not expected to live for long and advised by doctors to live a sedentary life. Franklin lived with a domineering mother who controlled his own finances until she died (in 1941) and, of course, was seriously disabled with polio. Eleanor, besides being a woman, with all the difficulties that came with prejudice and patriarchy of the day, was not particularly attractive and whose father was a broken alcoholic. Depression ran in the family, and most members suffered from it to one degree or another. Their enormous, old wealth, tracking back to the 1600s with their Dutch ancestors, took the sting out of their struggles to some extent, but all three succeeded and overcame so spectacularly, proving everyone wrong in almost every respect, that the feeling one is left with more than anything else is simple admiration.
Teddy, just to cite one example that Burns gleefully re-tells, was once shot in the chest at close range, and rather than even stepping from the podium at which he was standing, kept speaking for an hour and showed the audience his bloody shirt to prove how tough he was. Eleanor overcame shyness and deep insecurity about her appearance to become one of the most formidable women of the 20th century, perhaps even taking male and female lovers, but most importantly became a strident voice for social justice that rings true in our time. And Franklin not only led the country as President through the Great Depression and World War II, but was President for a dozen years and re-imagined the office, making the Presidency into the glamorous position it is today.
In Burns’ telling, none of these figures was without flaws. Teddy was a warmonger and an imperialist, and Burns doesn’t let him off the hook for that. And despite daringly dining with Booker T. Washington, he failed to engage with the issues of African Americans the way he could have. Franklin was fairly arrogant to say the least and while he greatly admired his wife Eleanor and respected her ideas (and those of her female friends), he needed to be with women who worshipped him and, shall we say, the power in his loins. He was spectacularly unfaithful to her, but their relationship was complex and, in its way, quite modern.
As always with Burns, there are long meditative passages with music lingering on poetically framed shots of sunsets, or sailboats. Burns has a way of finding the quiet moments in history, the little told stories. Jonathan Alter recalls a moving anecdote in Part 5 of friends finding FDR in a rare moment alone during the depression, sitting with his head in his hands, weeping violently with the stress of his life and office. As soon as the President notices them, he snaps back into his wise-cracking, always-smiling public persona. That’s the sort of history Burns tells. He covers the big moments and the small, and blends it all into an effective tapestry.
In terms of talking heads, the usual suspects appear, such as Burns’ writing collaborator Geoffrey C. Ward, historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCulloch (who was also Burns’ go-to narrator when he was first making films) and conservative columnist George Will, who has appeared in Burns films since Baseball. Will is a problematic political figure in today’s context, and his skepticism about Presidential power and the role of the federal government, as well as his disdain for the fact that (gasp) people had fun in the 1920s, is palatable and clearly has a lot more to do with his feelings about the current President than any Roosevelt. As usual, Burns employs some top-notch actors to give voice to his key historical figures, with Paul Giamatti bringing his most manly snarl, previously used when he played John Adams, as Teddy, an outstanding Meryl Streep as Eleanor and veteran actor Edward Herrmann as FDR. For narration, he turns to Peter Coyote, whose intelligence and passion for social justice is as evident in his voice now as it was in the sixties.
As always with Burns, the film is as much about the early 21st century as the 20th, encouraging its audience to consider the “great man” theory of history and how it applies today, to think of the nature of the relationship between government and its people and finally how much of a land of opportunity America truly is. The Roosevelts all started with stupendous advantages (none of them ever had to fear poverty or joblessness) but equally stupendous challenges. They inspired, and they continue to inspire. And beyond all of that, their story is a great story.
You can see Ken Burns The Roosevelts on PBS this week, and stream it from PBS until September 26. It’s available on DVD September 23.