Ken Burns Finds the Familiar in Telling the Larger-Than-Life Story of 'The Roosevelts'

"They are the boldest of the boldface names in American politics [but] we found something that was familiar about them because of these things they were going through," Burns says.
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Ken Burns's 27th documentary film is a 14-hour long deep dive into one of the most fascinating and prolific American families of the 20th century. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, now airing on PBS in seven installments, tells the individual and intertwined stories of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt over a period that spans over 100 years.

“This is fairly complex narrative. It takes three people—and by extension several dozen other people—and moves them through 104 years of familiar American history and tries to see it in another way,” Burns said at the TCA Conference in July, as reported by “For us, it was unwrapping something. When you focus on presidents and wars and generals as our narrative history, you're asking questions like, What's the role of government? What is the nature of leadership? How does character inform leadership? How is character itself formed by adversity in life? What are the flaws? Are we expecting perfection in our characters? Or do we understand that heroism is a negotiation between strengths and weaknesses? This is a fine calibration on the part of a writer and a filmmaker in trying to get that balance correct."

Burns’s goal was to bring out the universal humanity and family story behind the larger-than-life names. “They are the boldest of the boldface names in American politics. That tends to keep them at a distance. As we worked on the film, we found something that was familiar about them because of these things they were going through,” he explains. “The illnesses, the recoveries, the losses and betrayals: all of those things are very familiar to all of us. That became an anchor in which you could find purchase on these very complicated, and very famous, lives, and it somehow helped to take out the boldness of their boldface names."

As for Burns himself, the documentarian has no intention of slowing down. “I'm working on seven films right now," he reveals. "It's 24/7, but if you love your work, you don't spend the day working. We love nothing more than being in the editing room working ten hours a day trying to make a film better, and we're doing it right now on our Vietnam project. We're always at max speed in that way."

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