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Ken Burns' Roosevelt Effect

In 2014, I spoke with Ken Burns as he was preparing to release his epic look at the lives of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.


When documentary filmmakers show a still photo and pan and zoom across it, it’s known as “The Ken Burns Effect,” championed by the man behind the PBS juggernaut “The Civil War.”


Starting Sept. 14, the latest Ken Burns effect will be that people this fall will be talking all things Roosevelt, as his seven-part, 14-hour documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” comes to PBS. (Premieres 8 p.m., Sept. 14, WNET Thirteen.)


“In our media age, where we’re all buried in an avalanche of information, we actually know less and less and we resort, in desperation, to conventional wisdoms about people,” Burns said. “There has been tons written on Theodore, tons on Franklin, a little less on Franklin and Eleanor and less on Eleanor. But nothing has been done treating all three as family members.”


Eleanor was Theodore’s favorite niece; Franklin was Theodore’s fifth cousin. Burns presents the two branches of the Roosevelt tree: the Oyster Bay Republicans and the Hyde Park Democrats. Theirs is an interrelated story, Burns said, “a braided narrative, a complicated Russian novel of interconnections.”


The Roosevelts’ legacy continues to this day, in Roosevelt dimes and protected park lands. Their progressive approach to government -- reining in corporate excesses and creating a social safety net -- remains the focus of contemporary political battles.


“If you don’t want kids working 80 hours a week in coalmines, thank Theodore Roosevelt,” Burns said. “If you think there should be a liveable wage and liveable hours, that’s Theodore Roosevelt. If you think big monopolies should be restrained or broken up, that’s Theodore Roosevelt.”


If you go to a state park or a national forest, that’s the legacy of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Burns said.


“If you collect a Social Security check or went to school on the G.I. Bill or if you’ve flown out of LaGuardia Airport or taken the Lincoln Tunnel, you’re talking about the legacy of the Roosevelts.”


The legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt includes her work drafting the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Burns and series writer Geoffrey C. Ward are longtime collaborators. Ward, an FDR biographer and himself a polio victim, appears in the miniseries. In an emotional moment in Episode 4, Ward describes what it feels like to lose the power of one’s legs, and explains the painful stares, the weight and impact of cumbersome leg braces.


Still, in Burns’ understated fashion, there is no specific mention of Ward’s disability; it’s an inference left for the viewer to make.


“Everybody in television likes to point neon signs at stuff and say ‘See? See? See?’” Burns said. “Sometimes, the identification of people is like three lines: biographer, 27-time Grammy winner, whatever. I wanted to keep it simple. This is Geoff Ward. He’s a biographer. When you see a man break down about the sheer terror of polio and hear him describe in intimate details how Franklin Roosevelt went through it, you understand that he knows of what he speaks. The fact that Geoff contracted infantile paralysis when he was a child doesn’t need to be spoken.”


When archival audio recordings are not available, the voices are provided by Paul Giamatti (Theodore), Edward Herrmann (Franklin), and Meryl Streep (Eleanor).


“I’m as proud of it as any film we’ve done,” Burns said by phone from Seattle, on a West Coast speaking tour. “And there’s nowhere else on the dial where anybody would invest in this kind of deep dive into these extraordinary people.


“People tend to focus on the differences between Theodore and Franklin, in their sound and personality and party, but the similarities are far more common than their differences. That’s what we want to tell, the way Franklin strived to hit all the marks Theodore had set.”


“It’s an extraordinary story,” said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, one of the series’ talking heads. “The drama of it is unmatched, probably, in our history.”


Other speakers include historian David McCullough and commentator George Will, who declares “the best of the New Deal programs was Franklin Roosevelt’s smile.”


“The Roosevelts” winds through more than a century, from 1858 and the birth of an asthmatic, sickly Theodore, to Franklin’s polio diagnosis in 1921, to Eleanor’s 1962 death.


There is a photo of a young 6-year-old Theodore at a second-story window of the family’s Broadway mansion, looking down on the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln. There is photo of an aged Eleanor Roosevelt meeting with presidential nominee John F. Kennedy.


Burns chronicles the many relationships Eleanor and Franklin had outside of their marriage, and their peculiar marital bargain, in which each gave the other room to find comfort and companionship elsewhere. Eleanor drew the line only at Lucy Mercer, her former secretary, who nearly caused the Roosevelts to divorce in 1918. They remained together. Franklin vowed not to see her again, but in his last year, he and Mercer rekindled the relationship. She was at his side in his final hours, when he was stricken in Warm Springs, Ga., in April 1945.


The thread Ward weaves through the narrative -- through the political ascendency of both men, world wars, triumphs and setbacks -- is that the Roosevelts were wounded, but they plowed through their pain to serve others, to be active, to change the world.


“They went into their fears and learned to master them,” Burns said. “Whether it was asthma for TR, remaking his body, or being in constant motion to avoid the ‘Black Care’ that threatened to overtake him if he slowed down. Or Franklin facing the sheer terror of polio. And Eleanor going into the coalmines, going into asylums. This is extraordinary courage.”


“Her trip to the South Pacific during World War II was remarkable. Admiral Halsey is so sure she’s just a do-gooder and a naive one at that. All of a sudden, she not only goes into these burn wards, but she talks to each person and writes down their addresses and she contacts their parents. She’s the mom of the nation.”


There are remarkable glimpses into the lives and breadth of the Roosevelt name:

There is a photo of Theodore Roosevelt seated in the New York Assembly in 1881. His face is visible; his hands are in motion.


“This is the great thing,” Burns said. “The long exposure times of the 19th century means that Teddy Roosevelt is, more often than not, a blur. That tells you who he is, someone who’s trying to outrun his demons, the childhood illnesses and the unspeakable tragedy of losing his mother and his wife on the same day in the same house.”


There is film footage of Franklin Roosevelt frolicking in the pool with fellow polio victims at the hospital-camp he founded in Warm Springs, Ga. After learning in the film how unpopular he was at Groton and Harvard -- how classmates bristled at his proper air and maturity and his way of looking down his nose -- it is a glimpse of a grown man allowed to experience boyhood fun.


“In that photo, he belongs. He is the king of them all. ‘Doc Roosevelt,’” Burns said. “He nonetheless feels a sense of comradeship with everybody, and that his own affliction is equalized by the fact that there are people there with much worse afflictions and that he can bring his extraordinary personality and force of character to bear to make their lives bearable.”


A heartbreaking photo -- when you learn the background -- shows Eleanor Roosevelt, then an old woman, at the Taj Mahal in 1952. Her alcoholic father, Elliott -- who was Theodore’s younger brother -- had promised a young Eleanor that they would sit in the moonlight at the Taj Mahal, but he died at 34 in 1894, leaving many promises to his daughter unfulfilled.


“My mother died when I was 11,” Burns said. “You wouldn’t be talking to me if she had not died. It made me who I am. It works on us.


"Eleanor is a miracle of the human spirit, that she survived that childhood is a triumph. But it doesn’t mean that the baggage isn’t carried through the rest of her life. She revisits Campobello, where Franklin was stricken with polio, and she says ‘the night has a thousand eyes.’”

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© 2019 Peter D. Kramer