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The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Review

The fourteen hour documentary about the three Roosevelt cousins, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, that aired the week before the last week on PBS stations across the country was one of  Ken Burns’ best.  A total of seven episodes, broadcast in installments of two hours each, chronicled the lives of the three members of the Roosevelt family. The documentary spanned more than a century,  from Theodore’s birth to Eleanor’s death.  Despite its length, it left me wanting more.

The first three episodes focused mainly on TR or Theodore Roosevelt, while the next three on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, while the last one was about Eleanor’s life after White House.  Theodore and Franklin were fifth cousins, while Eleanor  was TR’s niece and FDR’s fifth cousin once removed.  Of all the episodes, only the sixth one on WWII felt repetitive.  Perhaps, because the history of WWII has been the subject of so many other TV documentaries on PBS and elsewhere.

Though all three cousins grew up in the lap luxury, I cannot imagine any of them jeering at those less fortunate than they were,  as moochers.  In the political arena, the Roosevelt, I was most inspired by, was FDR.  One can argue that he was one of the most consequential  Presidents of the United States.

The New Deal regulatory regime kept the financial genie that brought about the Great Depression caged, while the New Deal and the War Stimulus bought the greatest era of broad based prosperity to the United States.  One could argue that the ongoing dismantling of the New Deal regulatory regime since the Reagan administration has been directly responsible for many of the  financial crashes since then, including the latest one in 2008.  If a man is known by his enemies, FDR made the right ones.  He is hated even now by the intellectual and actual progeny of his erstwhile detractors. A cottage industry of  hacks discrediting or minimizing his achievements in tackling the Great Depression, exists even today, one recent example, here.

FDR’s other monumental achievement was his able leadership during the second world war. Mobilizing for WW II transformed the United States from a regional to a world power. In the light of FDR’s unparalleled legacy, the idea of term limits for a President does not make much sense, at least to me.

I knew the broad outlines of FDR’s story but this documentary filled in a lot of  details about Franklin D. Roosevelt as a person, including his often difficult marriage to his fifth cousin Eleanor and his struggles with polio.  Shy and reserved as a child, Eleanor, came into her own as time went by. Though she was unloved as a child or perhaps because of it she became a voice for those without a voice, whether they be miners in West Virginia or those who suffered under the Jim Crow regime years after the end of the Civil War.  On a personal level, Eleanor impressed me the most, her metamorphosis from a shy and unsure young woman to a stateswoman who shepherded the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the fledgling United Nations was truly inspirational.

Of the three,Theodore Roosevelt was the hardest for me to relate to, perhaps because his times have receded into a distant past and his world is a far cry from the world we live in today. His war lust seems out of place after the  two world wars and other conflicts.  There is no nobility in war now if there ever was in some distant past.  In the era of mechanized warfare and nuclear weapons, war means misery and death and not just for the soldiers . On the personal front,TR’s tenacity and courage in overcoming both asthma and depressive tendencies were nothing short of impressive. His colorful and brash personality must have guaranteed a good copy for the journalists of that era.  One thing struck me that TR would have been a misfit in today’s Republican party because of his progressive values and conservationist ideals.

The voice-overs for the Roosevelts were done by Paul Giamatti, Edward Hermann and Meryl Streep for TR, FDR and ER.   I found Streep distracting and a bit overdone.  All in all, an impressive documentary about three impressive people, flaws and all. At the end of part seven I was left wanting to know even more about them.

Credits :  Produced by Florentine Films and WETA, Washington. Directed by Ken Burns; written by Geoffrey C. Ward; Mr. Burns, Paul Barnes and Pam Tubridy-Baucom, producers; Mr. Barnes, Tricia Reidy and Erik Ewers, editors; Buddy Squires and Alan Moore, cinematographers. With: Meryl Streep (the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt), Paul Giamatti (Theodore Roosevelt) and Edward Hermann (Franklin Roosevelt). (source: NYT)

Grade: A