'The Roosevelts: An Intimate History': TV Review

PBS
A superb, lengthy and detailed look into the lives and careers — and how those elements intertwined — of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor are examined together for the first time in Ken Burns' impressive seven-part, 14-hour documentary

It doesn’t take long for Ken Burns — this country’s preeminent documentary filmmaker — to demonstrate that by intertwining the lives of Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt for the first time, not only would the outcome be a definitive and linear look at how one family changed the course of American history, but also in that same time Burns does something even more important: He documents the doubts, the hardships, the failures, sicknesses and deaths, depression, etc. — and triples the impact with the inclusion of them all.

That latter strain of the storytelling proves the most fascinating and maybe most enduring — certainly for those of us who didn’t know the full extent of their personal crises and tribulations, it makes the whole powerful documentary resonate with something more than just information. It’s seeded with emotion.

Written by Geoffrey C. Ward, Burns’ film deftly manages to weave these three powerful characters into the narrative thread. But chronologically, of course, Theodore Roosevelt is our first deep dive in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

And this is where Burns and Ward make it clear that the documentary isn’t a warts-free paean to the Roosevelt legacy. They first, very deftly, lay out the backdrop of wealth and privilege that allowed the Roosevelts to achieve their early successes. And while it’s always been true in American politics that wealth is often a springboard to power, the two early themes in this film are particularly intriguing. First, that Theodore’s father believed that wealth needed a social component — not just giving back but understanding the divide it created. Second, that Theodore especially (and later Eleanor to a like-minded degree) abhorred the notion of sitting back and doing nothing in life simply because you had the money or social standing to do so. That attitude, evident also in Franklin (though it manifested much later in his life that it did with Teddy), is the social-justice aspect that allowed both men to do great things as politicians.

It’s in those early scenes of Theodore and Franklin — fifth cousins — coming of age that the film is at its most revealing. Teddy was never meant to live very long, suffering from various problems including debilitating childhood asthma. The sicknesses and setbacks created a zest for life in Theodore where he took his father’s advice and believed that if you weren’t moving forward (in his case, frantically) and exploring life to its fullest, you were wasting it. And worse, any slowing down might not keep you sane.

Though depression was a family-wide issue, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor were particularly touched by it. Teddy’s manic nature seemed partly to ward it off, but the film shows how events in all three subjects' early lives were shaped by illness, dubious parenting and societal issues.

While viewers are likely to know of most if not all of the great achievements from Theodore and Franklin (a good deal of people won’t, of course) as well as Eleanor’s great achievements before and while in the White House, it just makes the formative years that much more interesting in Burns’ documentary.

Teddy’s manic rush to swallow life before it swallowed him only partly hints at his reckless megalomania. His battlefield victories were a combination of foolish bravado and good luck and were indicative, says one commentator, that Teddy had a real bloodlust. Franklin’s coddling by his mother creates a social outcast at school — he couldn’t relate to people his own age and they just didn’t like him. He was decent student but not a standout; he wasn’t able to be on his school’s athletic teams; he was excluded from clubs he had dearly hoped to be a part of. Eleanor was teased by her very own mother about her looks, and she maintained — even in her later years, when an emotionally intelligent person should have known better — a fantasy about her absent father, who was in reality a raging alcoholic and a man beaten down by mental issues. He was no one to idolize. In her early years Eleanor, after having lost both parents, was raised in an unhealthy environment at a relative’s house and very much lacked happiness until she went to Europe for school for a few years, only to be snatched back against her will to be a debutante — for which she already knew failure was assured.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History has a collection of rare videos and pictures that hold this documentary together with real elegance born of extensive research. It’s a pleasure to watch, and the weaving of the narrative thread is a thing of beauty.

Even when Burns and Ward get to the more known elements of each Roosevelt's political career, there seems to be new information or sharp insights to bring it into better focus. And the film never loses its insistence on understanding their state of mind — which is a state of mind less polished and romanticized than that portrayed in many school books.

There was great suffering in all the branches of the Roosevelt family. Surely some of this had to do with the state of modern medicine (as anyone watching The Knick on Cinemax at this moment will attest to). And yet there is a hopeful element to this documentary as well, since all three of these Roosevelts were particularly adept — heroic even — at overcoming their personal physical limitations. And yes, clearly, they all went on to accomplish things that changed the world in so many ways. Those are the more glory-filled moments of the series, but as a viewer you’ll likely find the less glamorous, more ordinary hardships the most interesting part.

Burns and Ward do the Roosevelts a great service by making them people first, politicians who changed laws and the world second. There’s a great, touching humanity at work here. It successfully allows all the Roosevelt warts — arrogance, privilege, dubious parenting, shifting morals and that ever-present politician's habit of promoting their interests even if innocent people get hurt along the way. The documentary does what it should: It paints a wide picture that allows you to see that people (even heroic people) are not all black and white. It’s a gray life of mistakes, greater-good decisions that are costly, bargains and alliances not so easily glossed over, and the toll taken by wanting to not just be president, but to be a president who redefined the role.

Weaved as it will be into the fabric of the fall TV season, it’s still important to eat your vegetables and take in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Ken Burns won’t let you down.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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