THE DOCUMENTARY "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History"
WHEN | WHERE Starts Sunday at 8 p.m. on WNET/13, then airs nightly at 8 p.m. through Sept. 20
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Ken Burns ("The Civil War," "Baseball") and his longtime co-producer, Geoffrey Ward, undertake an exploration of two of (among) America's most famous 20th century presidents, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (See sidebar for individual night details.)
MY SAY Going to a Ken Burns film for revisionist history is like going to an ice cream parlor for a bowl of broccoli. Revisionism -- or the methodical demolition of accepted wisdom -- is simply not his bag. Never was, never will be. An unblinkered romantic at heart, Burns is the sort of documentary producer who believes there's a God in the heavens, and that history is a rising road paved by great men like . . . well, like Teddy Roosevelt and FDR. ("The Rising Road," to borrow George F. Will's colorful phrase, is in fact the title of a later episode.)
With "An Intimate History," Burns has put out the call to the established historians -- like Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, even his own Boswell, Geoffrey Ward -- then assembled a magnificent mountain of archival material, and proceeded to tell us . . . what we already know, for the most part.
That doesn't make the film any less stirring or glorious. "The Roosevelts" is an exquisitely crafted monument to remarkable people who bent the remarkable times they lived in to their will. But the stories are well rubbed, and the men (and women) they're about are as well. Indeed, any man, woman or child living within at least a 10-mile radius of Sagamore Hill in Cove Neck knows their Teddy history -- intimate or otherwise -- almost by osmosis.
What's intriguing here -- potentially groundbreaking for TV -- is the way Burns and Ward (interviewed on camera extensively) have attempted to yoke the 26th president with the 32nd. Other than a last name and distant lineage, they don't really have much in common. But there is one vital linkage -- Eleanor, Teddy's niece and FDR's wife, who shared and admired Teddy's progressivism, and attempted to bootstrap some of that to her husband.
Eleanor, in fact, is the most "intimate" part of this vast portrait: In this film she emerges from the shadows cast by the giants who surrounded her to cast significant shadows of her own. The luminous picture of Eleanor does seem to be a groundbreaking one, certainly for TV.
Will you learn any startling new details about Teddy or FDR or their "intimate" lives? (Teddy, in fact, is largely wrapped by the third episode, entirely forgotten by the fourth.) Maybe not, but that almost feels beside the point: Burns and Ward pile on so much detail, alongside so much stunning footage, that by watching this whole spread -- to borrow that famous and also well-rubbed line -- will be like arriving "where we started and know the place for the first time."
BOTTOM LINE Magnificent. Of course.
'AN INTIMATE HISTORY,' EPISODE BY EPISODE
SUNDAY "Get Action" (1858-1901) -- Theodore Roosevelt charges into life. His fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is born -- and coddled by his mother, Sara.
MONDAY "In the Arena" (1901-1910) -- The beginning of Theodore's presidency; FDR marries Eleanor.
TUESDAY "The Fire of Life" (1910-1919) -- Teddy gets bored, wants to get back in the White House, and creates the Bull Moose Party; Franklin becomes secretary of the Navy; Teddy dies.
WEDNESDAY "The Storm" (1920-1933) -- FDR runs for vice president and is stricken with polio while at the Campobello family vacation compound. Becomes governor of New York.
THURSDAY "The Rising Road" (1933-39) -- FDR initiates the New Deal as America staggers through the Great Depression.
SEPT. 19 "The Common Cause" (1939-44) -- The war years. Eleanor fights to keep the New Deal on track.
SEPT. 20 "A Strong and Active Faith" (1944-62) -- FDR wins re-election but dies in April 1945 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Eleanor gets the last word -- as a champion of civil rights, civil liberties and the United Nations. She dies in 1962.