Now that we’re 33 years into Ken Burns’s documentary career, his immediately identifiable aesthetic has become so familiar that it seems, at first, cliché. Until you remember Burns, when he first entered the documentary world, was an innovator. It’s like watching a Hitchcock film and thinking the shooting style is hackneyed until you remember Hitchcock created that style, only to be mimicked over and over again by decades of admirers. Burns has similarly been copied—even parodied, in Community’s brilliant pillows and blanket forts war tale—countless times. Burns created a new way to explore history, one that doesn’t rely on reenactments or even very much video footage at all. He found ways to vitalize archival materials, enlivening photo stills with his signature pans and similarly giving life to the words of voices long gone through powerhouse actors, whose dramatic readings of quotes and records naturally transport you to specific times and places.
His latest work as PBS’s documentarian darling, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, expertly employs all of these usual methodologies to delve into one of America’s most politically influential power families. In typical Burns fashion, the miniseries is immense in length and scope, boasting 14 hours broken into seven episodes and covering Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency at the start of the 20th century as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s marathon four-term presidency three decades later. The throughline thesis of this huge body of work asserts that the Roosevelts changed the American presidency forever, transforming the office into a vastly powerful control center of domestic policy.
While The Roosevelts focuses mostly on the expansive political and institutional influence of the family, its best moments are the ones that humanize these individuals and imbue them with real feelings, fears, and vulnerabilities a photo in a textbook can’t evoke. This is, after all, supposed to be an intimate history, and that intimacy makes The Roosevelts fascinating in a way that a by-the-numbers historical doc can’t always muster.
One of the most interesting stories in the series, therefore, doesn’t belong to a president but to Margaret Suckley (voiced excellently by Patricia Clarkson). Despite being a distant cousin of FDR, Suckley had a close relationship with the president and became an influential figure as one of the archivists for the very first American presidential libraries. Suckley’s story rings with honesty and emotional resonance. “Quiet, good humored, unmarried,” narrator Peter Coyote succinctly says as he introduces Suckley in the fifth installment. We learn of the closeness between Suckley and FDR, how he allowed himself to really be himself around her and shared with her about his disability and struggles in a way he couldn’t with anyone else.
The Roosevelt who receives equal attention to the presidents is First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (whose words are brought to life by the one and only Meryl Streep), the longest serving First Lady in American history. The series again makes the case that this Roosevelt was transformative in her role, changing the position of First Lady from one of ceremony and symbolism to one of power and influence. Eleanor ushered in a new era of First Ladies who affect policy and pioneer movements. She began holding weekly press conferences of her own, only allowing female journalists to attend hers since only men were allowed to attend her husband’s. She wrote a syndicated newspaper column called “My Day,” where she discussed race, women, and social issues faced by Americans. Again, one of the most compelling facets of Eleanor’s narrative in The Roosevelts isn’t the political work she did—though her accomplishments in the policy arena are incredible and certainly nothing to dismiss—but rather her love story with journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok.
I call it a love story, because that’s really how it unfolds: Lorena’s intense friendship with Eleanor began when she was profiling the First Lady, but she eventually quit her job because the relationship made it impossible for her to remain objective. It was Lorena, The Roosevelts asserts, who inspired Eleanor and gave her the confidence to transcend the role of the ceremonial First Lady.
To Burns’s credit, the exploration of Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship in The Roosevelts never turns into back-and-forth speculation on the First Lady’s sexuality. In a press conference with critics, Burns noted: “This is an intimate history, not a tabloid history.” Instead, Burns puts forth the facts, the exchanges between Eleanor and Lorena that tell the story for themselves without the obtrusiveness of talking heads insisting the relationship was sexual, platonic, or what have you.
When apart, the two wrote each other daily. Streep dictates a letter from Eleanor to Lorena: “Hick, darling, remember always, no one is just what you are to me. I’d rather be writing this minute than anything else. I love many other people and some often can do things for me—probably better than you could. But I never enjoyed being with anyone the way I enjoyed being with you.” Burns doesn’t undercut the beauty and specificity of this language, but instead lets it hang there, a photo of Eleanor and Lorena together perfectly evoking that same intimacy captured in the words. It’s beautiful work that speaks to the storytelling power of Burns. This isn’t just a history lesson; it’s cinema.
- Is there Margaret Suckley/FDR fan fiction out there? Just kidding! (Or am I?)
- What about Eleanor/Hick? OK, but seriously, I would for sure watch a lightly fictionalized movie about the road trip those two took together.
- On that road trip, Eleanor refused to allow a Secret Service escort come with them and promised to keep a revolver in her glove compartment for protection. But that was just to appease the worrywort, as she ended up not bringing along any ammunition. Sneaky, sneaky Eleanor.
- The ladies of The Roosevelts are all so impressive, and I’m glad the documentary spends significant time with them, especially since they have some of the most interesting narratives.
- Eleanor’s response to a reporter warning her not to say things that could embarrass her husband, paraphrased: If I’m saying something that stirs shit, I’m trying to stir shit.
- “Eleanor Roosevelt was a baller” is a real sentence that I said to my friend around hour 9 of this journey.
- Can you tell which Roosevelt is my favorite Roosevelt?