|The Roosevelts: An Intimate History /|
Ken Burns in conversation at San Francisco's Castro Theatre.
Why do we cry when we see a Ken Burns documentary? Perhaps, it's because the documentary filmmaker has a remarkable talent for telling stories through real people.
"History is sharing the process of discovery," said Burns, whose 1990 film The Civil War brought him to the forefront of documentary filmmaking in the United States. He is known for his style of using archival footage and photographs. "Preserving the past is one of the greatest things you can do for the future."
Burns, 60, has also directed films about other subjects familiar to Americans, including: Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011) and The Central Park Five (2012).
This fall, the Emmy Award-winning Burns returns with a new film that depicts the monumental saga of an exceptional American family whose impact is still felt across the nation.
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, a new seven-part, 14-hour documentary directed by Burns and written by Geoffrey C. Ward, will debut nationwide on PBS on September 14. The film weaves together the stories of Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, three members of one of the most prominent and influential American political families.
Recently, I had the chance to preview The Roosevelts: An Intimate History during an evening with Ken Burns at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, which was sponsored by KQED, in partnership with Kraw Law Group and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Burns was in San Francisco not only to promote The Roosevelts in front of a captive and enthusiastic audience, but also to interview legendary San Francisco Giants baseball player Willie Mays for a future documentary he is currently working on about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the 1947.
In The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, said Burns, for the first time we truly get to veer into the private lives of the most public of people. And, it's the first time their individuals stories have been interwoven into a single narrative.
Over 20,000 archived photos went into the making of The Roosevelts. We see Theodore, who was once a sickly boy, storm into Washington like an officer charging into battle. We learn of Franklin, struck down by illness, and how he pulls himself back up while at the same time lifting the U.S. out of the Great Depression and World War II. And, we see how Eleanor redefines the role of First Lady while inspiring millions of Americans. The documentary follows the Roosevelts for over a century, from the birth of Theodore in 1858 to Eleanor's death in 1962.
"You can't expect people like that to happen all the time," said historian David McCullough, who appears on camera throughout the documentary. Adds fellow historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also appears on screen in The Roosevelts: "It's an extraordinary story. The drama is unmatched in our history."
According to Burns, the story of the Roosevelts raises many questions, such as: "What is the role of government in society?" and "What is heroism?" While it may be impossible to sum up in a sentence or two what Burns learned from working on The Roosevelts, one thing he said he took away from his work is this: FDR had an extraordinary ability to communicate.
The only thing we have to fear ... is fear itself.
"History is a rising road," said Burns. "Human nature is always the same. There at times has been incivility, but what's interesting is what's the same."
To learn more: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
Photograph: Michael Dickens ©2014.