Filmmaker Ken Burns said Saturday that he wants to tell the story of three of the most famous Roosevelts, their strengths and weaknesses, in an upcoming documentary on one of America's most famous political families.
He previewed part of the 14-hour series that will air next year during a reunion of the extended Roosevelt family at the former polio clinic in rural Georgia that President Franklin Roosevelt purchased after coming to seek a cure for his disabled legs. Roosevelt built a home here known as the Little White House, where he died in 1945.
Burns' film explores the political and family ties between President Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. The filmmaker acclaimed for documentaries on the Civil War, baseball and World War II said he aimed for an honest portrayal of political figures who were sometimes reduced to caricatures.
Contrasting American ideals of heroism with those of the heroes of ancient Greece, Burns remarked that the Greeks "saw heroes as having very obvious strength but also very obvious and sometimes equal weaknesses."
"Achilles had his heel," Burns said. "And so I think for us, it's always been what kind of American history do you show? One that's sort of treacly and superficial or one that gets deeper?"
Defining a common legacy between the three figures is tricky since their lives span from 1858 to 1962. The political populism of Theodore Roosevelt — for example, his anti-monopoly stances and efforts to improve food safety and regulation — arguably found a new expression in the New Deal politics championed by Franklin Roosevelt to alleviate the suffering inflicted by the Great Depression.
The film follows Eleanor Roosevelt as she emerged from her role as first lady after Roosevelt's death and successfully worked to adopt a United Nations declaration of human rights. She was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt and a distant relation to Franklin Roosevelt.
All three Roosevelts backed an expanded role for the central government, an unresolved issue in American politics. Congressional Republicans recently shut down much of the U.S. government in a failed attempt to derail big changes to the health insurance market made by a Democratic president.
"We have a federal government that is big because of Franklin Roosevelt," Burns said in an interview. "And lots of people think that's a good thing. And a lot of people think that's a bad thing. And a lot of people, most people, don't understand it."