Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt on Campobello Island in 1904
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library
September 12, 2014 9:00 AM EDT

The subtitle of Ken Burns’ newest PBS megaseries The Roosevelts–“An Intimate History”–is at once obvious and ironic. Documenting the lives of three people–Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt–is an unusually close-focus approach for Burns, who has only rarely done personal biographies. (Frank Lloyd Wright and Mark Twain, for instance–mere bagatelles, at less than four hours.)

On the other hand, The Roosevelts, premiering Sept. 14 on PBS, has a greater sweep than any Burns film before. (The Civil War was epic but covered a few years; Baseball and Jazz covered a much long span of time but covered specific subject matter.) Its first subject, Theodore, is born in 1858. Its last, his niece Eleanor, died in 1962. That’s 104 years, covering most of the period’s great national events–an awful lot of textbook American history to get intimate with, even over 14 hours.

But as with other Burns documentaries, there’s what the film is about and then there’s what it’s really about. Burns’s trick is to use comfortable, pledge-drive-friendly subjects to talk about issues that otherwise make people uncomfortable and polarized. So The Dust Bowl echoed the arguments over climate change. The National Parks, beyond the pretty pictures, was about whether there were certain things that government could do collectively–here, preserve unspoiled nature–that we cannot do individually or privately. Baseball and Jazz were, considerably, about race.

The Roosevelts, on one hand, is the story of, well, the Roosevelts: the personal and family influences that shaped three people who shaped America, whose dynastic saga author Jon Meacham compares in the documentary to something from Shakespeare. But The Roosevelts is also the story of the 20th century.

That may not seem so controversial–until you realize how many of today’s political arguments are about, essentially, whether the 20th century was a good idea. Limiting the power of corporations, expanding the power of government, creating a social safety net, putting women on more equal footing with men, ending American isolationism and becoming vigorously involved overseas–these are political hot buttons today, and they came to us largely through Roosevelts. (Just take a look, for instance, at Glenn Beck’s longtime campaign against “first progressive” Teddy.)

So there’s the intimate part of this “intimate history” and there’s the history part. And while The Roosevelts is, yes, long and at points fast-forwardable, in its best moments it gives human breath to a well-covered period of history, all in service of an idea: showing the ways that, through these generation, America matured and changed. (And–in the Burns tradition of laying its commentary between the lines–changed for the better.)

Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward keep the story lively by making their subjects people first–very privileged people, as the film never forgets, but each shaped by challenges. We meet Teddy as an asthmatic child who made himself an athlete and adventurer through force of will. Adventurous and relentlessly active–in part to stave off depression–he came to believe “that life was an ongoing battle.”

That attitude made him into the rough rider and explorer we know, but Burns and Ward explore its dark side too. He was a populist–“The Constitution,” he said, “was made for the people, not the people for the Constitution”–but also a kind of social Darwinist. He was physically fearless but loved and romanticized war in a way that, looking from the other side of the 20th century, seems foolhardy: “No triumph of peace is as great as the supreme triumph of war.” But he’s a compelling figure, both in and out of office; there’s a fascinating section on a disastrous South American river expedition on which the former President took so ill that he considered ending his life using morphine he had with him for just such an emergency.

Chew on that for a minute: one of the heads on Mount Rushmore belongs to a man who carried a lethal dose of morphine in case he needed to kill himself. It gives you a better picture of Teddy’s brash but dark worldview than an hour on the Panama Canal would.

Meanwhile the film weaves in Eleanor and Franklin, fifth cousins and soon-to-be spouses, each of whom shares different traits with their celebrated uncle. Franklin had an easier childhood, was doted on by his mother and was expected to achieve great things; his defining struggle came when he was stricken with polio in 1921. (An affliction, however, which the film speculates may have kept him from running for president in the prosperous 1920s, losing and going into obscurity.) Eleanor, meanwhile, grew up an insecure child who was not naturally outgoing; like Teddy, she threw herself into work and activity in part to chase away dark thoughts.

Their marriage is portrayed as a strong partnership but often not a warm one. FDR, who kept longtime close relationships with other women, could be “selfish” and “self-centered”–byproducts, it seems, of the same confidence that helped him stage-manage an image of vigor though paralyzed and, later, in gravely ill health. As he becomes President for over 12 years, through a depression and a war, he dominates several hours of the film. Only in the last hour, after FDR’s death in 1945, does Eleanor really get the spotlight. (She does get voiced by Meryl Streep, however, so she has that going for her.)

It’s too bad, because her story is more interesting for being less often told. As First Lady, she acts as a liberal conscience to FDR, taking a kind of flak that sounds too familiar today: she should stay in the kitchen (she was, in fact, terrible in the kitchen and apparently just fine with that) and not insert herself into public life. “People can understand,” she said, “that an individual, even if she is the President’s wife, may have independent views and must be allowed the expression of an opinion. But actual participation in the work of the government, we are not yet able to accept.” Only as a widow and former First Lady–helping to establish the United Nations and advocating civil rights–does she feel “free.”

The Roosevelts tells the story of the American 20th century in triptych. Teddy (who became President in 1901) is progressivism, expansionism and reform. FDR is the rise of American power and the rewriting of the social contract. (Conservative pundit George Will sums up his legacy: the government would not just “provide the conditions for the pursuit of happiness” but “deliver happiness, understood as material well-being.”) Eleanor looks ahead to postwar globalism and the move of women and minorities in from the margins. Over seven nights, the times change visually, as the years advance and that sepia Burns photography gives way to color motion picture. When Eleanor had the film’s last word, in a reminiscence about her husband and uncle–I won’t spoil it–I got choked up in a way I expect from Parenthood, not a Presidential history.

In a way Burns has made seven short documentaries, filling in some gaps in his cumulative history of the U.S., like the Depression and New Deal. At times–as is almost inevitable with a documentary with this scope–The Roosevelts retreads some material from past Burns documentaries. (If you don’t have time to catch every night, for instance, you might skip episode 6, largely covering the WWII ground of Burns’ The War.)

By telling this very public history in a very personal way, The Roosevelts brings up a kind of nature-nurture question: did these leaders make the times, or did the times make these leaders? It can’t answer this question. But it does manage to tell an educational, emotional story of how these leaders and their times made us.

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