In “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” Ken Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward have a topic every bit as big as their canvas, and a subject that feels especially timely given the U.S. political dynasties of the modern age. Admirers of Burns’ documentary epics surely need no more incentive than seeing his name affixed to the Roosevelt name, and the documentary miniseries is a meticulously crafted and wonderfully executed effort that represents a very good new deal for PBS and its viewers.
Subtitled “An Intimate History,” “The Roosevelts” has the time to fulfill its promise, oscillating between the stories and lives of Theodore Roosevelt, his beloved niece Eleanor and distant cousin Franklin. Those principals’ personal correspondence, moreover, is given voice by Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep (who remarkably replicates Eleanor’s distinct delivery) and Edward Herrmann, who played FDR in the landmark miniseries “Eleanor and Franklin.”
For those who have studied the Roosevelts, many of the stories will be familiar. But the beauty of the writing (“No other American family has ever touched so many lives”) and eye-opening video nevertheless make much of this feel fresh. Nor should the parallels between the Roosevelts and the Clintons be lost on viewers, with the filmmakers describing Eleanor and Franklin’s marriage as “one of the great partnerships in the history of the world,” despite his betrayal of their vows with Lucy Mercer.
Early chapters are, not surprisingly, dominated by Teddy, described by historian David McCullough as “a high-intensity light bulb that burned out quickly.” His stratospheric political career was also characterized by near-unimaginable personal tragedy, including the deaths of his first wife and mother on the same day.
Teddy’s third-party run for the presidency is documented at some length, as well as his warlike tendencies and determination that his sons fight in World War I.
Even though Franklin and Teddy represented different parties, the younger Roosevelt, born to a doting mother who was more than 30 years the junior of his ailing father, was also extremely ambitious, having set his eye as a very young man on following in his famous kin’s footsteps.
The most resonant parts of the docu, perhaps inevitably, involve FDR’s stewardship of the nation during World War II — as columnist George Will notes, furtively using his influence and initiatives like the Lend-Lease Program to assist England, while maneuvering to “trick the country into going in a direction it did not want to go.” There is also the matter of how Franklin departed with George Washington’s precedent in seeking a third (and eventually, fourth) term; as well as his ailing health, and how the country was misled about his condition.
A final installment, meanwhile, is devoted to Eleanor — throughout FDR’s presidency, his “liberal conscience” — and her remarkable work (and interesting personal life) in the years after his death. A particularly moving anecdote involves her trip to the Pacific during the war, noting that she brought the soldiers something many of them had not had access to for several years: An American mother.
In an age where dramatic reenactments have lazily become more the norm than the exception, Burns continues to demonstrate just how unnecessary that is. While much of the footage unearthed is arresting, in the early going he gets by with still photographs, music and voiceover to convey more than any assemblage of actors in Rough Riders garb possibly could.
For PBS, “The Roosevelts” is not only a classy showcase, but also the kind of production sure to grab larger-than-usual audiences, as “The Civil War” and “The War” did before it. And while the demographics will inevitably skew toward an older crowd, that, too, reinforces public TV’s reason for being: catering to the under-served fringes of the ad-supported broadcast space, in much the way PBS’ preschool offerings do.
Burns has few mountains left to climb, but he clearly relishes the freedom — and shelf space — that public TV affords him.
By that measure, too, “The Roosevelts” is a welcome representation, in media terms, of another kind of very, very successful marriage.