Saturday, January 30, 2016

A review of PBS's “FDR” movie

I should give a disclaimer up front that I have not seen Ken Burns' series "The Roosevelts," which includes considerable material on both Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor - although I've heard it's weaved together fairly well (and tells their lives in parallel), I am somewhat put off by the length of the series, and feel no particular need to watch it anyway - at this time, at least - when I have this fine film about FDR (and another about his famous cousin Theodore Roosevelt). Perhaps I will get around to watching it someday - I've heard that it's sometimes available on Netflix - but for now, at least, I'll confine my made-for-television biographies of FDR to this classic one by David Grubin; who is also the maker of PBS's films on Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman, and LBJ. (I might also note one other thing about this filmmaker, which is that he made some films about a few notable Europeans as well, such as Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, which are also quite good.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, this television biography of FDR is quite good - with plenty of real photographs and footage of him, it manages to tell the story with considerable interest and visual detail. It has interviews with his descendants (along with some former members of his administration and a number of scholarly talking heads); and there's also a notable interview with one of Churchill's daughters, where she comments on this famous relationship between the two men, which was one of the great and important relationships of World War II. FDR actually got us involved in the war long before Pearl Harbor, with the Lend-Lease aid to Britain, and the Navy's involvement in the Battle of the Atlantic. Although not many would appreciate it today, FDR was pushing the envelope on what Americans would tolerate in this area; and he may have helped save Britain by his successful advocacy of (at least some) early American involvement in the war.

Atlantic Charter, 1941 - a meeting between FDR and Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales

Although the documentary does a good job of covering this earlier American involvement, their coverage of the war itself actually leaves something to be desired; since they only spend one of the film's four hours on the events of World War II - with two hours spent on his early life, and one hour spent on the Great Depression portion of his presidency, only one hour was left to cover World War II. One gets the feeling that an extra hour or two would have been nice to make it feel less rushed in this regard. (PBS allowed a six-hour series to be made about Abraham Lincoln, with four hours spent on the events of the Civil War; and one gets the feelings that something comparable would have been more appropriate here for FDR.)

D-Day at Omaha Beach - Normandy, France 1944

And yet the coverage that they do have is quite good, as they give a (painfully) brief overview of the wartime portion of his presidency. The only other complaint I have in this regard, besides the inadequate length, is that they spend some time criticizing some of the more important aspects of his wartime leadership - for example, criticizing the research into the A-bomb, which is something that it was vital that America get hold of first. It would have been a catastrophe for the world if the Germans had gotten hold of it before we did (which was a chillingly real possibility), and the documentary's questioning of the ethics of it seems to smack of modern political correctness about the "proper" way to conduct a war - something which leaves me rolling my eyes somewhat, at the extent to which "political correctness" now pollutes our national dialogue.

Rare photo of FDR in a wheelchair during his struggle with polio, 1941 - an aspect of his life
that was hushed up quite deliberately, and thus photographed very little

If there was something appropriate to be cut in the pursuit of a shorter four-hour length, my vote would have gone to the extensive coverage of his early life. Although interesting, it seems of less importance to the national story than the events of his presidency, and particularly the wartime portion of it. I will say one thing for it, though - their coverage of his early life really is quite interesting, with their depiction of his suffering from polio, and the serious political consequences that he would have suffered if it had been known to the public. Unfortunately, Mr. Roosevelt lied brazenly about the state of his health (and his difficulties in walking without help), and he was not above telling what Winston Churchill once called a "terminological inexactitude" - a humorous euphemism brought up by one of the former members of his administration, which seems an appropriate description of many aspects of his presidency.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt with their two eldest children, 1908

The most "juicy" part of his early life, as they say - and unfortunately, also one of the saddest - is the unhappy state of his marriage to Eleanor Roosevelt. After the couple had raised six children, he became involved in an affair with one Lucy Mercer, who was employed as the social secretary of none other than his wife Eleanor. Eleanor actually discovered the affair when she found some love letters from her in his suitcase, and confronted him about the infidelity. I'm not completely sure what their conversation went like, but as the documentary puts it (with considerable understatement), they would "never again know the intimacies of married life" (a mild way of putting the now-loveless nature of their marriage). Lucy was not the only woman he would have an affair with - the documentary also mentions Marguerite "Missy" LeHand - and it is interesting how some of Mr. Roosevelt's admirers today are willing to ignore these acts of infidelity, when talking about his charm and his personality. Personally, I would have preferred less coverage of the more sensational aspects of Mr. Roosevelt's personal life (although I do think it was appropriate to mention them), but would have rather had more about "meaty" stuff, like politics and statesmanship.

Poor mother and children in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, 1936

And in regard to that "politics and statesmanship," perhaps a few words about the Great Depression portion of Mr. Roosevelt's presidency would be helpful here, since the documentary includes an entire hour on this subject. Although economics may not be as sexy as wars and gossip, it is vitally important to Americans (and to every other society as well); and few generations in this country have felt the lack of economic productivity more than the generation that lived through the Great Depression. It may, in fact, be the worst peacetime catastrophe in this nation's history, whose effects were felt far beyond the shores of our own nation.

FDR signs Social Security Act, 1935

The greatest tragedy on the Great Depression may have been that it was preventable, and that it seems to have been made worse by the well-intentioned (yet harmful) policies of FDR. As much as liberals have portrayed the big-government policies of the New Deal glowingly, it seems quite clear now that it made things worse, and that the Depression wouldn't have lasted nearly as long as it did without the "New Deal" policies of FDR helping to prolong it. (More on that in a separate post.) The documentary's coverage in this regard is actually quite good, though, I should make clear; and although they sometimes portray glowingly his big-government approach, they do admit that the legacy of FDR during this peacetime period is somewhat "mixed." This may be a reference to the unconstitutionality of his court-packing scheme (the attempt by FDR to remove judges from the Supreme Court when they issued rulings against his legislation) - something the documentary covers in this episode. I might even go a step further than they do here, which is to say that if his presidency had ended at Pearl Harbor, his legacy would not have been merely mixed, but mostly bad; being helped only by the way that he helped prepare our country for war during the 1930's - as Hitler rose to power in what would rapidly become Nazi Germany.

USS Arizona sinking at Pearl Harbor - December 7, 1941

And yet, his preparing the country for war is not something to be dismissed, I should make clear - like LBJ, he does have at least one aspect of his presidency to redeem him for his many failures on the economy (and it's a big one for both men). For LBJ, it was civil rights; and for FDR, it was World War II - both before we became officially involved in it, and after the events of Pearl Harbor. As I've said, the documentary's coverage in this regard is somewhat lacking (both for some political correctness and for inadequate length), but the actual story itself - for this part of his presidency - is quite impressive, as this longest-serving president in our country's history redeemed himself, for the way that he handled our economy in the 1930's.

Suffice it to say here that this documentary is a good one; and that the flaws in this film notwithstanding, it is a film whose quality is right up there with the best programs by PBS most of the time; and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in FDR.

DVD at Amazon

Can be viewed online at PBS website

If you liked this post, you might also like:

The Great Depression & FDR

Winston Churchill movies

Dwight Eisenhower movies

Harry Truman movies

World War II miniseries

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