Earlier this year marked the 60th anniversary of the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. HBO marked the occasion with Warm Springs, a great film depicting the first few years of
Roosevelt's struggle with polio, while The History Channel took the opportunity to create a comprehensive new two-part documentary called, "FDR: A Presidency Revealed." As the name implies, it's a sort of pseudo-sequel to 2003's "JFK: A Presidency Revealed" – filled with home movies, audio recordings, and personal remembrances of the late president, as well as discussion of his actions, policies, and place in history by more than 20 historians, including his grandson.
Covering his 12 years in office until his death in 1944, the 200-minute documentary is mostly a lineup of the problems he faced in that time, beginning with the Great Depression and continuing on in chronological order. His response to the crisis takes up the majority of the first episode, although Tyler Kent and FDR's vain effort to stack the Supreme Court are also included. The second part deals entirely with World War II, Roosevelt's close relationship with British prime minister Winston Churchill, and his effort to steer popular opinion towards armed conflict with Germany and Japan.
Although the program points out Roosevelt's most obvious, incontrovertible failures, such as when he shamefully signed the order to imprison all Japanese-Americans or acquiesced to Stalin's demand to control all of eastern Europe in exchange for an alliance against Japan, "FDR: A Presidency Revealed" also spends
a good amount of time on lower-visibility issues, like his lack of support for a federal anti-lynching bill, in spite of his wife's vigorous support. However, in a deliberate
effort to be as mainstream as possible, it consciously avoids controversy. For instance, it only spends a few moments on Roosevelt's possible foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor before declaring categorically that no compelling evidence has surfaced for anything other than complete surprise on the part of the president.
Overall, though, I was impressed with the consistent quality and wide range of issues that were mentioned, if only briefly for some.
Despite coming down firmly in favor of a positive assessment of the president, "FDR: A Presidency Revealed" does a good job balancing both sides of coin.
This aired on The History Channel, and as such it's 4:3 standard TV ratio. The vast majority of the program is composed of historical footage, most of which was not cared for too well in the last 60-70 years. Some of the clips are fuzzy and indistinct, while others have sharp lines in the print. Some are in color; most are black and white. Given the material, it's expected. The interview segments for the program look fine.
I did notice a problem on my laptop, however, that I didn't notice on my TV. At the very top of the screen, in the overscan, a white and black bar moves around throughout the entire duration of the video. It's pretty distracting, but as I said, you shouldn't have a problem watching the DVD on a television set.
Edward Herrmann does a great job with the narration – those of you who have seen "The Presidents" series on The History Channel will
remember his voice. The music is similar to that series, as well, though nothing really stands out. Only one language track (Dolby 2.0), but it's closed captioned.
The second disc contains two much shorter "Biography" episodes on Roosevelt's presidency:
"FDR: Years of Crisis" and "FDR: The War Years." They are more or less unabashed hero worship; without the modern host segments, they are basically classic movie reels on his accomplishments. Neither segment is terribly interesting except as a curiosity. There's also a 17-minute "History in the Making: FDR" segment which obsessively focuses on Roosevelt's physical disability as a result of polio.
"FDR: A Presidency Revealed" is a reasonably evenhanded look at one of the most complex political figures of the 20th Century, and with plenty of new material (such as never-before-seen home movies), it's a must-own for Roosevelt enthusiasts. For armchair historians, however, the low rewatchability and ho-hum extras just don't justify a purchase. Rent it.