While television is often blamed for everything from shortened attention spans to college students who cannot name a president before Ronald Reagan, two productions this month about Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggest that television also can illuminate history through evocative storytelling.
FDR: A Presidency Revealed, a four-hour special starting tonight on the History Channel, and Warm Springs, an inspirational HBO film starring Kenneth Branagh about Roosevelt's struggle with polio, not only remember the 32nd president of the United States, but also bring his indomitable spirit back to life. Shared national memory is well served when television, with its audience of millions, tells stories as historically sound and skillfully crafted as these.
The History Channel engages Roosevelt's private and political lives with the same intensity, detail and multiple perspectives regularly offered by television longest-running and most-honored history series, PBS' American Experience. The documentary's stirring final sequence of words and images -- spanning FDR's funeral and assessments of his contributions to American life -- will remind many viewers of American Experience in rhythm, language and tone. Narrator Edward Herrmann almost sounds as if he is channeling David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning host of the PBS series.
The cable channel has a number of historical bells and whistles that it has been touting in an effort to convince viewers that A Presidency Revealed has new information and insights to offer, even for those who consider themselves highly knowledgeable about Roosevelt. Most impressive are the sound bites from Eleanor Roosevelt that are used throughout the two-night production. Simply hearing the actual voice of Eleanor Roosevelt lends a tremendous sense of authenticity to the production.
But the filmmakers offer more than sound for the sake of sound. The first lady's words also provide intimacy, describing the private anguish at the Roosevelt vacation home at Campobello in 1921 when Franklin was told he had contracted polio, or how strangely detached the president seemed after first hearing the news on Dec. 8, 1941, that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and devastated much of the Navy's Pacific fleet.
Overall, the greatest strength of A Presidency Revealed is its lineup of historians and authors: Robert Dallek (Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945) David Kennedy (Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945), Hugh Gallagher (FDR's Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt's Massive Disability -- and the Intense Efforts to Conceal It From the Public) and William Leuchtenburg (The FDR Years: On Roosevelt & His Legacy).
And that's just four of the 20 on-camera historians. As much insight and balance as they provide, no talking head offers more insight than Curtis Roosevelt, grandson of Eleanor and Franklin, who lived in the White House in the 1940s. Not only did he witness history as it unfolded, but he recounts that experience with the same kind of wisdom and passion that Shelby Foote brought to his anecdotes in Ken Burns' PBS epic, The Civil War. Never is Curtis Roosevelt's ability to accept and appreciate various points of view more apparent than in the memories he shares of his mother, Anne, being asked by her father, Franklin, to serve as go-between for meetings with Lucy Mercer Rutherford, the president's mistress.
A Presidency Revealed has the power to make one weep for Roosevelt, but it is no whitewash.
Historians rip Roosevelt on screen for not trying to stop the lynching of African-Americans in the 1930s, and Eleanor Roosevelt's rage at her husband for approving the Japanese internment camps during World War II is fully chronicled.
In that balance and the fully rounded portrait it provides of a very human president wrestling with two of the greatest challenges America has ever faced in the Great Depression and World War II, the History Channel fully lives up to its name.
A fierce portrayal
HBO focuses on a narrower bit of Roosevelt's life, but trains its lens on compelling years. Warm Springs revisits the Roosevelt saga from the time shortly before he contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39, until he started his climb back into the area of political life in 1928.
These are Roosevelt's wilderness years, where, after becoming paralyzed, he gave in to a life of drink and near-despair while living on a houseboat off the coast of Florida. In 1924, hoping for a miracle cure in the mineral waters of a broken-down health spa, he arrives at Warm Springs in the backwoods of Georgia.
Branagh plays Roosevelt with a ferocity that makes one forget how little the British actor resembles the president. The actor masters the president's movements and iconic postures: the angle at which he held his cigarette, the jut of his chin and the radiance of his smile.