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Ken Burns Spends 14 Hours with 'The Roosevelts'

By Bob Fisher

By Bob Fisher and Thomas White 

Ken Burns has produced and directed 27 documentaries on subjects ranging from the Civil War to the Prohibition Era to baseball. He has earned two Academy Award nominations, five Emmy Awards and seven other nominations. Burns was the recipient of the IDA Career Achievement Award in 2002.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is the next chapter in the evolving story of  his career. The seven-episode,14-hour documentary, which premieres September 14 on PBS, takes audiences on a 100-year journey with Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It was produced by Burns' company, Florentine Films, and WETA-TV, the PBS affiliate in Washington, DC. 

The documentary begins with the birth of Theodore in 1858 and concludes with the death of Eleanor, his niece, in 1962. Burns says that this ambitious endeavor was a work-in-progress for about seven years. His longtime collaborators—writer Geoffrey Ward, producer/editor Paul Barnes and cinematographer Buddy Squires—played significant roles.

"Geoffrey and I had been talking about this since we began collaborating during the early 1980s," Burns says. "For a long time, we thought it would just be about Franklin Roosevelt. Geoffrey has written two books about him. We decided it would be more interesting and meaningful to make a documentary about the complicated, intertwined relationships between Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. They were exceptional people who tackled daunting challenges with ingenuity and humanity."

The series includes a treasure trove of archival photographs, drawings, newsreels and other motion pictures that documents the lives of the Roosevelts and the evolving history of their times.

Doris Kearns Goodwin and 14 other historians offer compelling insights in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The interviews were filmed at locations where history happened, including a Roosevelt family compound in Hyde Park, New York; Theodore's home on Sagamore Hill on Long Island, New York; and Franklin's summer home on Campobello Island, off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada.

Peter Coyote narrates the screenplay, while Meryl Streep portrays Eleanor Roosevelt in readings from her personal letters and writings. The voiceover cast also includes Paul Giamatti, as Theodore Roosevelt, and Edward Herrmann, as Franklin Roosevelt.

The first three episodes of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History cover Theodore's rise to power, from New York City Police Commissioner to New York State Governor, to war hero in the Spanish-American War, to US vice president and, finally, to the presidency, which he assumed upon President William McKinley's assassination in 1901. Theodore was subsequently elected president in 1904.


President Theodore Roosevelt, 1903. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 

Theodore Roosevelt was a trust-buster, who fought corruption in the railroad, oil and other industries. He championed the Food and Drug Act, which gave the government authority to assure public safety. And he established 125 million acres of national forests and parks.

The balance of the series is devoted to Franklin—Theodore's fifth cousin—and Eleanor. Franklin served as assistant secretary of the Navy in Theodore's administration. Following a run for vice president in 1920, Franklin was stricken with polio at age 39. The Roosevelts covers the FDR's unprecedented 12 years as US president, beginning with the Great Depression, which crippled the economy after the 1929 stock market crash; continuing with his ambitious New Deal program, designed to address the staggering unemployment and financial losses incurred by tens of millions of Americans; and highlighted by his extraordinary leadership during World War II.

The series concludes with FDR's death and Eleanor's emergence as a champion of civil rights and civil liberties. She also served as US delegate to the United Nations and as chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Prior to her passing in 1962, she chaired President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women.


Delegate Eleanor Roosvelt at a meeting at the United Naitons, 1947. Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidnetial Library 

There was something about the Roosevelts that, despite their patrician bearings, connected them with so many Americans across the classes. "There is something that each one of them says in their own way that is the key to this," Burns noted at a presentation at the Television Critics Association (TCA) conference held in Beverly Hills in July. "Part of what we do is, we engage in the mystery; we don't solve it. All of them had a similar idea: We share a sense of fairness and a sense of obligation to those less fortunate-and that speaks directly to what Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor were about and that equation of, essentially, a rising tide lifts all ships, which is the fundamental aspect of their philosophy. When FDR's funeral procession went by, a man collapsed; he was so overcome. A neighbor picked him up and said, 'Did you know the president?' And he responded, 'No, but he knew me.'"

But it is the "Intimate History" in the subtitle of the series that presented its greatest challenge for Burns and Ward-How intimate? How historic?  "I spent 30 years writing about the Roosevelts," said Ward at the TCA conference. "[For this series] it was compression, and then trying to make it a family story, which no one had never done before. They all talked about each other all the time; they resented each other or loved each other. That was fun trying to braid that all so you had a real sense of how they lived their lives."

"This is fairly complex narrative," Burns added. "It takes three people-and by extension several dozen other people—and moves them through 104 years of familiar American history and tries to see it in another way. For us, it was unwrapping something. When you focus on presidents and wars and generals as our narrative history, you're asking questions like, What's the role of government? What is the nature of leadership? How does character inform leadership? How is character itself formed by adversity in life? What are the flaws? Are we expecting perfection in our characters? Or do we understand that heroism is a negotiation between strengths and weaknesses? This  is a fine calibration on the part of a writer and a filmmaker in trying to get that balance correct."

"They are the boldest of the boldface names in American politics," Burns continued. "That tends to keep them at a distance. As we worked on the film, we found something that was familiar about them because of these things they were going through. The illnesses, the recoveries, the losses and betrayals: all of those things are very familiar to all of us. That became an anchor in which you could find purchase on these very complicated, and very famous, lives, and it somehow helped to take out the boldness of their boldface names."

Of course, the humanizing element in FDR's presidency was his debilitating fight with polio—a fact that is common knowledge today, but that was kept hidden by both the White House and the press that covered him.

"I think you'll have a sense all the way through of the extraordinary struggle FDR had just to get through the day and to pretend that nothing was bothering him," Ward noted.

"In the election of 1944," Burns added, "when he's running for an unprecedented fourth term and he's frail and very ill, he traveled to New York City in the pouring rain to nearly all five boroughs in an open car, with the Secret Service taking him off the trail and stripping him, giving him a shot of bourbon and putting dry clothes on him. He arrives in Ebbets Field and newsmen had to turn off their cameras, but there was enough in the margins to see."

It was that in-the-margins footage, those few seconds of FDR in all his infirmity and pain and disability just before the cameras were turned off, that made a crucial difference in showing us viewers the magnanimity and humanity of the man. Did Burns have any qualms about including this footage? "Not at all," he told the TCA audience. "I think it's so moving. We had pretty much finished the film when we discovered four seconds of footage from the University of Pennsylvania. So we cut into it the film—at a huge expense—but we felt it was hugely important. This is accidental stuff: A train in Bismarck, North Dakota, and a platform that's extending out, with two railings, and he suddenly lumbers down and in just a couple of seconds you begin to understand what an incredible effort it was. The Ebbets Field footage shows that it's beyond stunning that he ever made it out of bed any single day."


President Franklin D. Roosevelt returns from a fishing trip, 1934.  Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

But again, given that Burns and Ward have billed this series as "An Intimate History," how "intimate" do you get? What does "intimate" mean here? Where is the line between "intimate" and "history"?

"This was a huge debate within our discussions in the editing room," Burns recalled. "We didn't want it to be just The Roosevelts. We debated "intimate" because it does suggest the tabloid. At the same time, as you pursue the backgrounds of people, you're walking the razor's edge where you don't want to get into psychobiography—and I don't think we've done that—but you do want an understanding of where they came from and the kind of adversity they felt. The "intimate" part has do with trying to understand from the inside out, rather from the top down."

And despite the exhausting magnitude of The Roosevelts series, Burns is not slowing down. Future projects include major series on country and western music and the Vietnam War, as well as a film on Jackie Robinson. Burns is also serving as executive producer and senior creative consultant on Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

"I'm working on seven films right now," he said. "It's 24/7, but if you love your work, you don't spend the day working. We love nothing more than being in the editing room working ten hours a day trying to make a film better, and we're doing it right now on our Vietnam project. We're always at max speed in that way."

Editor's Note: And if you want to find out more about Theodore Roosevelt, you might want to check out the new edition of Harrison Engle's The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt, distributed by Millennium Entertainment.  This fifth edition will hit the streets October 28.

 Bob Fisher has written more than 2,500 articles about narrative and documentary filmmakers over the past 50 years. Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.