Monday, 6 October 2014

The Roosevelt Effect.


Expectations are strange as far as I'm concerned. I shift between the two extremes. Either I harbour none, or they are impossible to live up to. This is particularly so when something takes a long time to come to fruition.

I first heard that Ken Burns was making a documentary on the three famous Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor two years ago, and that his frequent collabroator, Geoffrey C Ward, would be writing it. I was even more elated when I found out that (of course) it wouldn't be a single stand alone documentary, but a seven part, 14 hour series.

I had joined the cult of Burns and Ward some 5 years ago when I first saw their documentaries on The Civil War, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and then later Baseball. Each were sweeping in scope, with a contradictory mastery of fine detail. The so called 'Ken Burns Effect' is so well known by the public at large it has been parodied extensively. But while Burns gets most of the credit, it is Ward who brings the history to life with his trademark narrative push that focuses on the big and the small. It helps in this case that Ward is one of the world's most respected scholars on all things Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  

Given that Franklin is my hero, idol, and inspiration, and the fact that his family's story was being told by Burns and Ward I lived in frenzied expectation. It is true that I would tell anyone who would listen that The Roosevelts: An Intimate History would be in my biased, politically and historically obsessed opinion, the best program to ever air on television.

For once the remarkably high expectations I had set were matched, and even surpassed. It is exceptionally hard to distill each episode or their respective highlights. However, the highest compliment I can give the overall series is that Burns and Ward achieved the impossible and demonstrated to me that even I had underestimated the achievements of all three Roosevelts.

I love Theodore, the 26th President of the United States (1901-1908), for his ability to harness the big picture aspects of political life, and for his determination to hold steadfast to particular sets of principles, no matter what came his way. All this was achieved despite grave challenges throughout his life, including losing his first wife and mother within hours of each other on the same day.

I obviously love Franklin, the 32nd President of the United States (1933-1945), because he is, and was, the greatest political leader the world has ever known. He was the saviour of the American economy in the midst of the Great Depression, commander of the American forces during World War Two, and the architect of the modern political world. All this was achieved with a severe physical disability, which left his physical movement roughly equivalent to my own.

I love Eleanor (niece of Theodore and wife of Franklin), because as Burns like to say '...she was on the right side of history on every issue, except Prohibition (and you can't really blame her for that because her father was an alcoholic).' She was the leader of the women's movement and architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Again, all this was achieved despite a truly awful childhood, which very few others would survive, let alone have the ability to thrive in adulthood.

The moment of the series for me personally occurs in episode four, Into the Storm, as Ward describes the moment when Franklin realises he has contracted polio and he would not be able to move without assistance ever again. These words are given extra special meaning because like Franklin, Ward has polio. As Ward chokes back tears he says that the disease:
'... produces terror, unreasoning terror, you just can't believe, that the legs you depended on, simply don't work.. It's agonising, simply agonising... he (Roosevelt) lay there terrified.. he must not tell (people) how terrified he was, he simply turned inward'.
In that moment I cried, and I cried, and I cried. Yes, Franklin was modern history's greatest figure, but he shared that terror with Ward. And they shared that terror with me too.

Sadly, the greatest achievement in my televisual history is unlikely to ever be broadcast in Australia  (I brought this DVD set from America). This is despite the fact that Meryl Streep narrates Eleanor's voiceover, whilst Paul Giamatti narrates Theodore's. It seems that very few Australians share my Roosevelt historical fanaticism. Pity, because we all have much to learn from this series: about courage, about triumphing despite adversity, about passion, and about leadership. Now there's only one question left to answer:

Can Burns and Ward surpass their own brilliance with their upcoming series on the Vietnam War?

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