KEN BURNS: THE ROOSEVELTS
Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: George Will, Doris
Kearns Goodwin (commentators), Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Edward
Herrmann (voice actors), Peter Coyote (narrator)
Director: Ken Burns
Audio: English 5.1, Spanish 2.0, English and Spanish subtitles
Video: Color and B&W, 1040i HD 16 x 9 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 14 hours
Release date: September 16, 2014
“This great nation will endure, will survive, and will and prosper… but first of all, let me assert my firm belief, that the only thing we have to fear is: fear itself!” - President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
While they were from different parties, had different temperaments and methods, and were president at very different times, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were the two titans of American Politics for the first half of the twentieth century. TR was the first American to win a Nobel Prize, the Peace Prize for a treaty he negotiated between Russia and Japan. Before this, it would have been unthinkable that the USA even cared about such conflicts, but TR always looked at the bigger picture. Both were seen as traitors to the aristocracy for their plans to help everyday Americans and fundamentally change the relationship between the citizens and their government. Both presidents greatly enlarged the office and saw the Constitution as elastic enough for their ambitions. TR’s ambition for a third term instead divided the GOP and allowed Woodrow Wilson to change the course of the nation. Some historians think that if TR had been president when WWI broke out, he may have been able to convince European powers to step back from the abyss of war, because TR knew them personally and was respected by them.
FDR on the other hand inherited the Great Depression and reluctantly had to bring America into WWII after Pearl Harbor. While historians have debated the pros and cons of the New Deal, many important reforms did come out of his administration, and his courage during that crisis and the war was inspiring. His electric smile inspired the country not to give up.
Eleanor Roosevelt is often thought to be the progressive, liberal voice that encouraged FDR in his ambitions and in her later years was especially influential in reaching out to minorities and the disenfranchised in America.
Ken Burns is a master of making the viewer feel like we know the people on the screen personally, and manages to weave very interesting trivia and humorous conversations from their lives into the narrative. Without them, history is a long boring list of dates and events.
For example, the opening scene is of a young FDR in his law office. He had been an indifferent student at Harvard and was an indifferent lawyer as well. As the young attorneys discuss their ambitions to become partner, FDR says that he will be president one day. No one doubted him. Of course, his fifth cousin Theodore was perhaps the most popular president in American history up to his time, and FDR possessed was has been termed a “third-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament.” His charm was irresistible. He would often telephone people whose assistance he needed and greet them by their first name, as if he had wanted to speak to them personally for a long time. Despite his tremendous pain in using braces, once he was in position at a podium, whether on a train or at a national convention, dripping with sweat from his exertion, all he had to do was flash that million-dollar smile and speak in his confident, reassuring voice that everything was going to be all right no matter what happened. And more than likely, he really believed it.
Ken Burns deserves credit for bringing in commentators that sometimes do not agree with each other, or at least see two different sides of the coin. For example, one historian after another praises the New Deal, while George Will points out that these two presidents set up Americans for future disappointment because people assumed the government would solve all of their problems. There is merit to both opinions.
Here at DVD Movie Central, we enjoy black and white on Blu-Ray. Naturally all of the images of TR and FDR are B&W but they are selected very carefully, especially pictures of all three Roosevelts in the flower of youth, before cares of the world aged them. Also, panning and scanning is very smooth and gives the illusion of movement to the images. Some of the old photographs are especially haunting, such as the pyramids of Egypt from a cruise the family took in TR’s youth. There are also many contemporary color images of key locations in the Roosevelt story. Interviews with contemporary commentators are full color, but the transition between one and the other is uniformly smooth and excellent. These transitions may have been the only shortcoming of his amazing Civil War series, which of course was done with yesterday’s video editing technology.
Crisp and well-mixed, a nice soundtrack by David Cieri enhances the film tremendously. While rear channels are not needed for special effects as in many other films, they are used to create depth and take advantage of a nice home theater.
If fourteen hours is not enough, there are thirteen bonus videos (more than an hour total) of some interesting pieces that add footnote style information. There are also deleted scenes with introductions by Ken Burns and a “making of” featurette.
It might have been easier to have made only one film about each person, but Ken Burns has managed to weave their stories into the fabric of American history and we feel as though we know them personally. Ken Burns continues to show how documentaries can be entertaining in ways that are not possible only in the written word. Despite its length, this evenly-paced film will surely be the standard against which all other documentaries of those years will be measured.