TV Review The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Posted: October 11, 2014 in Documentary


Episode 1: Get Action

The early lives of Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor.

Documentarian extraordinaire Ken Burns once again makes compelling television by using seemingly simplistic filmmaking techniques.  But the interplay of still pictures, mournful music, and voice over narration makes for a dramatic telling of the lives of three political giants. What makes this story so compelling is the revelations of the most intimate Roosevelt family secrets.

Teddy Roosevelt began life as an asthmatic, not exactly the barrel chested rough and read hero he would later become. Get Action was an admonition from TR’s father not to waste a moment of his life, so Teddy become a perpetual motion machine, and approached everything with the boundless energy he became famous for.  TR lost his father at an early age, then got married, only to lose his first wife and mother on the same day. Teddy’s brother and Eleanor’s father spent his short life drinking and carousing before being committed to a sanitarium.

FDR began life as a pampered and much loved child of an older father, he had a rough life in prep school and college. Despite all these personal hurdles and maybe because of them, they kept an unflappable positive spirit and rallied people to their side.  Burns’ superior storytelling ability illustrates all sides of this almost Shakespearian tale, and the viewer can only be enthralled.

Episode 2:  In the Arena:

Teddy Roosevelt becomes President after the McKinley assassination. FDR meets and marries distant cousin Eleanor.

Teddy Roosevelt was a complex man, a wealthy man, whose instincts lead him to protect the little man. He went up against JP Morgan to break up the Northern Securities railroad, he was responsible for settling the Anthracite Coal Strike, he campaigned for the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspectors Act which all became law.

Some say he had an imperialist foreign policy, his brutal treatment of the people in the Philippines and backing of the Panamanians against Columbia would seem to support this assertion.  He believed that the US should control all the countries in the Western Hemisphere, this is called the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.  Despite his imperialist tendencies Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War.

Burns is careful to not whitewash the legacy of TR.  He presents Roosevelt’s shortcomings as well as his laudatory moments. The aforementioned imperialism is a blot on his record, as is his civil rights record. He’s the first President to host a black man, Booker T Washington in the White House, but later in his presidency he disbanded a black regiment of soldiers for allegedly rioting in a Texas town.

He deeply mourned the death of his first wife Alice, and his oldest daughter, also named Alice was a bit of a wild child, who felt neglected.

Cousin Franklin was blackballed in college, spurned by his first girlfriend, met and married his cousin Eleanor.  Eleanor was rejected by her mother because if her looks, idolized her father who was an alcoholic, and died at the age of 34.  Eleanor found her self-confidence in a boarding school in London. Eleanor felt controlled by her mother-in-law who decorated her New York house with Franklin.  She threw herself into volunteer work with the immigrants of New York, and lost her third child as a baby, she blamed herself for the loss of the child.

Burns also does an excellent job of intermingling the three lives, Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor.  They are all giants , and it’s interesting to see Franklin, and Eleanor in their insecure youth.


Episode 3:  The Fire of Life

Teddy runs for president again in 1912, and loses.  Franklin begins his political ascent.  Eleanor learns to become a dutiful political wife.

What becomes eminently clear in this portion of the lives of Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor is that their lives are filled with pain.  Teddy is so acutely aware that he ended his political career early that he runs again as a Bull Moose and loses.  Then, unable to keep his energies at bay, Teddy goes to the Amazon, catches malaria and almost dies, then he starts pushing Woodrow Wilson to get involved in WW I.  By this time FDR is Assistant Navy Secretary.  Teddy first tires to enlist in WW I, and then gets his sons involved with tragic consequences.  Meanwhile, Eleanor has to deal with tragedy of her own. Teddy dies at the age of 60.  The only one seemingly immune to the pain around him is Franklin, who is a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Ken Burns is such a good storyteller that this documentary is a riveting and emotional experience, that doesn’t seem self-evident in a political documentary, but the subheading of this documentary is An Intimate History, and it is the intimacy that draws the viewer in, and makes for entertaining and interesting viewing.


Episode 4: The Storm

FDR contracts polio, runs for governor of NY in 1928, runs for President in 1932.  Eleanor develops her own political legacy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt experienced a charmed life until August 11, 1921, when he developed polio.  The horror that is polio is terrifyingly illustrated.  When FDR first contracted it, local doctors could not even diagnose what was wrong with him. Doctors finally diagnosed what was wrong with FDR, and he spent a lot of time away from his wife and kids, first with his mother, and then with his secretary Missy Lehand.  The children are devastated by having an absentee father.  The rehabilitation effort is herculean, but  there was no overall change in his condition by 1923. The viewers hear from his doctors, and his children to get the full effect of his illness. FDR somehow wills himself to make a nominating speech for Al Smith, and then incredibly FDR replaces Smith as governor of New York, which begins a rivalry between Smith and FDR.

In 1924, FDR went to Warm Springs Georgia for the first time and the natural springs there seemed to soothe the aches from his polio, he wanted to build a resort there, but it turned out to be a place where other polio victims or disabled people in general could come and relax.  Roosevelt found it relaxing too, he could soak in the water, ambulate without his braces and just relax.  He had found an oasis from his hectic life and later turned it into a rehabilitation center.  Ken Burns shows a picturesque shot of one spot, and the viewer can see why Roosevelt loved it so much.

Eleanor also began to establish political networks, which would enrich and edify her whole life.  She joined the League of Women Voters, she took on Tammany Hall boss Charles Murphy over women delegates to the 1924 Democratic Convention and won, the women got to pick the delegates and not Murphy.  And Eleanor and her female politicos, built a retreat at Val Kill, and she felt comfortable there to learn and grow.

There is also a rivalry growing between the Republican Roosevelts and the Democratic Roosevelts.  Teddy Jr.  doesn’t care much for Franklin, and Eleanor goes out of her way to destroy Teddy Jr during the Teapot Dome scandal.

All of these aspects of the Roosevelt story, are covered in searing and soaring detail by Burns, when the viewer hears about Franklin’s polio, it’s a crushing blow, when the viewer sees Franklin fighting to walk and become a political figures again, the viewer can’t help but be buoyed by it.  The viewer is encouraged by Eleanor’s story as well, she was judged early on for her looks, but she became the hero of many dispossessed women.  If the Franklin Roosevelt story was a fictional one no one would believe it, and yet it’s true and expertly told by Burns.


Episode 5:  The Rising Road

FDR’s New Deal programs begin to take effect and Hitler rises to power in Germany.

There is not much intimacy in this episode.  Burns does touch on the relationship between Daisy Suckley and FDR, but he describes the relationship as an intense friendship and doesn’t speculate as others have, that the two were engaged in an affair.  Burns does show how powerful radio was as a tool in the 30’s, and how expertly FDR uses it.  His fireside chats galvanized public opinion to reinvest in the banks, and reinforced the idea that FDR was on the side of the common man.  Hearing those speeches and fireside chats are still riveting.  Seeing that old footage of FDR speaking is still powerful.  If it doesn’t move you, you cannot be moved.

The administration still banned footage of FDR in a wheelchair or trying to walk, and the press went along with it.  Today’s tabloids would have a field day with his disability and the country would not be better off.

Burns also chronicles the excesses of FDR’s administration, like his attempt to pack the Supreme Court with judges more amenable to FDR’s policies. He was roundly criticized for meddling in the checks and balances set forth in the Constitution and lost much of his mandate, in the end, the Supreme Court did approve Social Security and the National Labor Relations Board.  FDR won a second term easily.

Eleanor did not like the glare of the public spotlight, but continued to accrue power of her own, she wrote a daily column, called My Day, continued to criticize the Republican branch of her family for their cheap shots of Franklin, and continued to advise Franklin on how to make his New Deal programs more effective.  Burns illustrates the complexity of these people superbly.

Episode 6:  The Common Cause

FDR mulls entering WWII, Eleanor continues her push for reform.

FDR’s biggest job at this time was to convince a war-weary and isolationist country that entry into WWII was a necessity. At the same time, he was non-committal about running for a third term.  FDR won a third term over Wendell Wilkie by promising to stay out of WWII.  The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 finished off isolationism once and for all.

In the run up to the war, Roosevelt lost his secretary Missy Lehand to a stroke, and his mother to a heart attack.  FDR transformed the military into a modern military in a manner of years, and largely gave up on New Deal programs.

Eleanor lost her brother during this time, but would not be silenced in her quest for social justice.  She continued to push for integrated troops, and after the war started, she visited the troops.  The move was opposed by the Republicans and the General in charge, but the General’s mind was changed when he saw Eleanor’s tireless work with the soldiers, she asked every soldier if they wanted to write home.  She wrote every member of the troops that she visited.  She also pushed FDR for an end to the Japanese internment camps.  Eleanor also tried and failed to allow more Jewish refugees into America while the Holocaust was going on.

At the age of 62, in 1943, at the urging of his daughter, FDR went to see a doctor, he had congestive heart disease.  Everyone was sworn to secrecy, and the war planning went on as usual.

The revelations in this episode were stunning.  Ken Burns has put together a masterpiece.

Episode 7: A Strong and Active Faith

With his health failing and FDR losing weight, FDR surrounded himself with women, who were ready to follow his every whim.  Former girlfriend  Lucy Rutherfurd, FDR’s daughter Anna, and adoring cousin Daisy Suckley gave FDR the unconditional love that FDR got first from his mother.  Anna kept the meetings between her father and Lucy Rutherfurd a secret from her mother.  When Eleanor found out that Franklin was meeting Lucy in secret, she was devastated,

FDR’s health continued to decline, Stalin, and Churchill were shocked to see how emaciated Franklin was.  Despite his flagging  health, he won re-election and passed the GI Bill in 1944.  On April 12, 1945, Frankin Delano Roosevelt died from a cerebral hemorrhage,  Eleanor continued to be a force in liberal politics until the 1960’s.  She passed away in 1962.

Burns’ the Rossevelts is an epic historical documentary, the interweaving of flawless historical research and  incredibly personal revelations, make this documentary required watching for any history buff or anyone interested in the greatest political dynasty of our time. This is undoubtedly Burns’ best documentary since his  groundbreaking Civil War documentary.



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