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what i watched last week

the roosevelts: an intimate history

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a film or a television series ... I’m going with TV, since that’s where Ken Burns always ends up.

Burns’ style is so recognizable that I know it quite well, even though the only other one of his documentaries I’ve watched to the end was Baseball. I don’t know why I haven't seen more ... they always get good reviews, and I do like documentaries. Anyway, as my previous viewing demonstrates, I tune in when the topic is particularly interesting to me, like baseball. So you can infer something about me when I tell you I made it through all 14 hours of The Roosevelts.

I was raised to believe that FDR was the greatest American president. Not by my parents ... my dad was pretty much on the border between Democrat and Republican in those days, and while my mom and I often discussed important topics, they tended more to philosophical concerns than political. But her mother, my grandmother, loved talking politics, for hours on end. She was a New Deal Democrat, and she loved Franklin Roosevelt. I can’t count the number of times she told me about FDR’s dog, Fala. She had a box set of LPs titled F.D.R. Speaks that we would listen to ... it had his four inaugural speeches, a selection of Fireside Chats, the “Day of Infamy” speech, and yes, the one where he talked about Fala. She would explain the context for the various speeches ... this would have been around the mid-60s, I knew very little beyond what she told me.

Like many fans of FDR, I’ve often wondered how the country would be different if LBJ hadn't screwed up on Vietnam. And I’ve wondered why President Obama hasn't done what Roosevelt did. My friend Jonathan Bernstein, who has forgotten more about the U.S. presidency than most of us actually know, was good at reminding me that it’s not 1932 any longer.

The selling point about The Roosevelts, beyond the part where it’s the latest epic from Ken Burns, is that it looks at three members of the family instead of one. From Teddy’s birth to Eleanor’s death covers just over a hundred years. They were connected by more than blood, and Burns keeps things moving forward by effectively intertwining their stories. Naturally, Teddy dominates at first, Eleanor blossoms most in the final hour, and Franklin gets lots of screen time (as perhaps befits a man who won four presidential elections). Burns is known for presenting a seemingly unbiased narrative that nonetheless is driven by Burns’ own beliefs. As Matt Zoller Seitz noted:

Where real history is concerned, Burns is as much of a cinematic mythmaker as John Ford, Steven Spielberg, or Oliver Stone. You’re aware that what you’re seeing isn’t a just-the-facts recitation of what happened and to whom, but one filmmaker’s presentation of a particular political worldview (mainstream liberal, optimistic verging on rosy, but hypersensitive to issues of race, class and gender that other big-ticket documentaries tend to gloss over).

The other key to The Roosevelts can be found in the subtitle: “An Intimate History”. While the series covers a century’s worth of history, it also spends significant time delving into the psychological makeup of the three protagonists. This can be a bit tricky ... the more we learn about them as people, the more we empathize with them, the more we are willing to accept their weaknesses. Eleanor comes across the best here, perhaps because she’s the only one of the three who wasn't President. Her mistakes were not as crucial to the world, so we are left with the good things she accomplished, and there are many. Plus, by outliving the others, she gets the last word ... the majority of the final episode is devoted to her life and career post-Franklin.

There is another kind of trickery involving the personal lives, one that Michelangelo Signorile addresses effectively. Burns spends plenty of time telling us about FDR’s many affairs, and how they impacted his relationship with Eleanor. Those affairs are not off-limits ... they help make this “an intimate history”. But Burns consciously chooses to leave out part of the story entirely:

It's long been discussed that Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and deep relationship with the Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok, with whom she went on a road trip, alone, across the country, and who even had a room in the White House for a time -- and those facts are included in the series. Also included is the fact that Eleanor had friends and colleagues with whom she organized on women's issues who were lesbians, some of them in deeply committed relationships.

But the way Burns treats all of this is to discuss Eleanor and Hickok as close and intimate "friends" -- he has Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us Hickok was "in love" with Eleanor, almost as if it was one-sided -- but never using the "L" word, or even raising the possibility of sex, seeming to view that as sleazy.

He then quotes Burns saying, “This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid”, and asks, “Why is it ‘tabloid’ rather than ‘intimate’ to speak of the possibility of a sexual relationship between two women?”

Signorile also discusses lesser-known items about FDR’s role in anti-gay scandals, “lesser-known” to me, at least ... I hadn't heard about them before.

I mention this mainly to show how even a director like Burns, who seems to cover every possible angle of his subjects, invariably leaves something out, with the decisions about what to avoid being the choices of a specific individual “mythmaker”.

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