Ken Burns is the Oprah Winfrey of documentarians. He is revered by loyal viewers, historians and A-list celebrities who happily provide narration work when asked.
The man has tackled America’s biggest events, people and trends with trademark lyricism and elegance, be it Mark Twain, the Civil War, baseball or jazz. His latest effort provides a window into the world of two presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and FDR’s wife, Eleanor.
The seven-part, 14-hour series “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday on GPB, with new two-hour episodes airing each day the rest of the week.
“Nobody’s ever done all three of them together,” Burns said in a recent interview. “Nobody has seen it as the complicated, interrelated, interconnected family drama that it is.”
Burns noted how inspired FDR was as a young man watching his distant cousin Teddy rule the country with a big stick in the early part of the century, knocking down corporate titans, building the National Park System and mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
At the same time, Teddy was borderline reckless. “He thought war was a good thing,” Burns said.
The series shows how crucial FDR’s wife, Eleanor, helped shape him into the indispensable leader he became. He also reveals how FDR’s polio at age 39 may have kept him in a wheelchair but drove him to greater political heights as he guided Americans through two of the greatest crises they had faced since the Civil War: the Great Depression and World War II. Burns considers FDR “our greatest 20th-century president and perhaps our greatest president of all.”
While Burns covers their accomplishments and successes, all three “are deeply flawed individuals,” Burns said.
Teddy, he said, is someone you’d love to hang out with at a bar and drink a beer. But there was also a side of him that was always trying to escape demons. “He worried if he slowed down,” Burns said, “he’d explode.”
Eleanor, he said, “had this most pathetic childhood, unspeakably sad … yet she became the most consequential first lady we’ve ever had.”
And Burns described FDR “as a most loved, pampered child. He was a little too ambitious, a little too charming.”
Burns and his chief collaborator and historian Geoffrey Ward had talked about doing a series on the Roosevelts for 32 years. Ward had written three books about FDR already. Seven years ago, they finally decided to move forward.
“The issues and questions about government they grappled with are not really different from what we face today,” Burns said. “… What should citizens accept from government? What is the nature of leadership? How does character contribute to leadership? How is character formed by adversity? It’s an amazing roller coaster.”
Georgia plays a small role in both Teddy’s and FDR’s lives. Teddy’s mother, Martha, grew up in Roswell, and FDR spent time in Warm Springs for polio treatment. FDR, as the New York governor, built a home in Warm Springs and used it as a retreat when he became president. It was dubbed the Little White House and is now a museum.
The series features top-notch vocal talent, including Paul Giamatti as Teddy, Meryl Streep as Eleanor and Ed Herrmann (who portrayed FDR in a 1976 TV movie) as FDR.
“They relieve us the tyranny of the third-person narrator,” Burns said. “… To have someone like Meryl Streep bring Eleanor alive is incredible. We had historians in our edit bay with tears running down their cheeks, and they’d been studying Eleanor for 50, 60 years.”