Ken Burns, the relentless producer of TV documentaries, has a new, ambitious film for the multitudes. It is “The Roosevelts, An Intimate History,” chronicling the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt “3 members of the most prominent and influential family in American politics.” It’s to run in seven parts (for a total of 14 hours over seven weeks) on Sundays on PBS.
Burns and his team follow the Roosevelts for more than a century beginning with Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962.
According to one reviewer, the saga “touches on social movements, technological changes, and not least on methods of warfare.” A tall order even for 14 hours spread over two hours over seven weeks. To say nothing of the “infidelities, gossip, the mother-in-law issues, how media gave FDR a pass on his polio.” We’re told we see a few glimpses of FDR standing to walk, “sadly illuminating.”
In my own reading and talks with people close to Franklin, I would say that the most important crises he faced in his 62 years was when he was stricken with polio at 39 and when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Roosevelt was 59.
A critic for the Denver Post sounded a sour note when he said that, in part. the story is “overly celebratory, almost worshipful of this American dynasty…not critical enough.”
Burns is faulted for not “exploring FDR’s inaction that cost so many lives during the Holocaust,” which my Webster’s describes as “the systematic mass slaughter of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War 2.” I was a kid when World War Two was raging. Roosevelt was a hero to me and fellow Jews for facing up to Hitler. Nonetheless and though I have read widely in the period, the lack of action to do something important during Hitler’s reign of terror remains a sore spot, an open wound, in the affection I otherwise feel towards Franklin Roosevelt.
A point made in the documentary – one that speaks to our own day – is that Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor, patricians all, “devoted much of their lives to improving the lot of the masses.” Asked the Denver critic.”Why would these privileged, wealthy people devote themselves to public service, sometimes pushing agendas like the New Deal?”
Burns’ answer is: “What we do is sort of engage mystery. We don’t solve it.”
He sounds reasonable enough, but for my money he’s burying his own story.
That said, I plan to watch Sunday and see for myself.
This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.