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Paramount // Unrated // January 10, 2006
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted January 18, 2006 | E-mail the Author

The Subject-

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America's 32nd president and the man who was at the nation's helm during two of the most turbulent events of the 20th century- the Great Depression and World War II. A man who revolutionized the way Americans lived as well as how they saw their leader. A leader who was loved and revered to the extent of being elected to the nation's highest office four times.

The DVD-

FDR is of course a considerable subject for any studio to take on, and in this case it is PBS' American Experience series. A 2-disc set with over 4 hours of footage, this presentation aims to do justice to telling the story of one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century.

The first hour of this documentary moves along quickly. Beginning at his childhood we are given a fairly concise look at his early years- born into an upscale family and raised as such by a mother who was somewhat domineering and a father who was 53 at the time of Roosevelt's birth; his school years at Groton, attending Harvard and courting Eleanor Roosevelt, his distant cousin who happens to be the favorite niece of Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States; the man whom Franklin most admires and in turn emulates in his deciding to go into politics to eventually become president himself. We see his rise in politics in the state senate, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and as the vice-presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket in 1920. A healthy man in those days with both vigor and charisma, we are also given a revealing, less than idyllic look at his personal life, his affair with Lucy Mercer that almost cost him his marriage and political aspirations, and as a result of that affair Eleanor's beginnings as an independent, strong personality that no longer stood in the shadows behind her husband. Any telling of FDR's life would be hard pressed to not spend a good deal of time interweaving Eleanor's own legacy in the mix, and PBS does not disappoint.

The second hour takes the viewer into FDR's years of affliction, depression and redemption- years he spent away from the political arena. In 1921 Roosevelt was suddenly stricken with polio and never walked without assistance of some sort again. The ensuing years were ones of semi-retirement for Franklin, looking for a remedy for his affliction and never giving up hope that he might one day walk again, be cured of the disease, a hope he amazingly kept alive until the day he died. Also during this time Eleanor began to make her own way in the world of politics, speaking for countless organizations and taking up such causes as workman's compensation and unemployment insurance, all on the surface in the name of her husband but in actuality on her own, becoming more independent and making political choices of her own.

At one point in this time FDR went south to Warm Springs hoping that the climate and waters there would be conducive to a recovery; while this was not the case, he did conceive and finance the idea of bringing others with his handicap there, and in 1927 pioneered the Warm Springs Institute For Rehabilitation. Almost certainly these were the times that changed Roosevelt in a way that brought him in touch with the heartland of America- no electricity, low farm prices, poor roads, so many barely able to scratch out even the most meager of lives. Polio taught him about suffering and in turn enabled him to understand the suffering of others in ways he had never experienced in his own life. 1928 was the point he once again entered politics, giving the nomination speech for Democratic Presidential nominee Al Smith. Though he lost the presidential election to Herbert Hoover, Smith helped Roosevelt win the office of Governor of New York, where he began to work on his own policies when the stock market crashed. As the depression deepened, FDR inaugurated programs such as relief for the unemployed as well as relief for the aged, enabling him to easily win the 1932 Democratic Party Presidential nomination and in turn easily win the election. By the time Roosevelt took office 4 months later, the depression had worsened- 5000 more banks had closed and each month 20,000 farmers were losing their land. On March 4th, 1933, a man who could not walk became the leader of a crippled country.

The third hour of this set takes us into the presidential years. While the first two hours (the whole of disc one) are enlightening and informative, disc two is of particular interest to history buffs. Clearly, there had been no crisis in the country of the magnitude of the Great Depression since the Civil War. With 14 million people out of work and 9 million whom had lost their homes, America was in a state of collapse and the possibility of it's government being overthrown was becoming very real. Whereas Hoover had sat in the White House seeing things as hopeless and government helpless, Roosevelt promised- and brought- hope and help in his first 100 days. Likening his job to one of a quarterback, he made the decision to experiment honestly with ways in which to lift the United States out of it's poverty. Unemployment assistance, the guaranteeing of bank security and safety, minimum wage laws, putting tens of thousands of people back to work overnight in government funded projects, assisting private companies with billions of dollars, trying several things to revive the economy and many meeting a good deal of success.

By 1936 over 6 million people were back to work, Detroit was rolling out cars in the nearly pre-depression numbers, and Franklin was re-elected by a landslide. This was to be a 4 years different from the last, with a recession, increased conflict in Congress against New deal policies, an attempt by FDR to manipulate the Supreme Court, and the growing conflict in Europe. Privately against isolationism but publicly trying to appease those who would have the country stay neutral, FDR's hands had been tied by Congress and a cautious public. Growing weary with the rigors of active political life, Roosevelt struggled with the decision to run for a third term but ultimately did so, in part because he knew that America would at some point be drawn into the war in Europe.

The final hour of this documentary brings us to 1940; Nazi Germany was storming all of Europe when FDR was elected to his third term. Month after month for over a year Winston Churchill wired Roosevelt in secret, asking for US reenforcement. Roosevelt wanted to help but the American sentiment was against it. Congress was against the sending of weapons to Great Britain unless they were paid for in cash- which was impossible as England was bankrupt. FDR's workaround was crafty- he asked Congress for a lend-lease bill which would "loan" weaponry to England, which was signed into law and gave the British supplies worth billions of dollars. With public opinion on the war in Europe confused, so too was Roosevelt- knowing that American entry into the war was inevitable but powerless to do so without the nation's support. Privately, he made a pledge to Churchill that he would wage war against Germany but not declare it, doing whatever was necessary to force an incident that would bring the United States in. In part that began with an attack on the Greer, a destroyer secretly stalking Nazi submarines in the Atlantic. While he did not ask Congress for a declaration of war, he used the incident to facilitate an undeclared war in the seas.

On December 7th, 1941 Roosevelt was informed that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, decimating the pacific fleet. The following day he gave his "date which will live in infamy" speech, and four days later Japan declared war on America. Early on the news was all bad; during that time Churchill came to the White House for a full month to plot strategy on how to wage war against both the Germans and Japanese. It was decided that the alliance would fight the Germans first, but in order for America to get into the fight, the production of war machinery began on an incredible level. On November 8th,1942 FDR sent American soldiers to North Africa to combat for the first time against the German army. From there on the USA was in the fight. Facing decisions on strategies and weapons terrible in their potential for destruction, Roosevelt made them- intent on winning the war.

By the end of the war the government had pumped 380 billion dollars into the economy- any American who wanted a job could find one, and the Great Depression was finally over. With so much money going to the war machine, the tide was turning- but at an awful cost of American lives all over the world at Bataan, Corrigidor, Guadalcanal. In November 1943 FDR flew to Iran to meet with both Stalin and Churchill; Stalin screamed for help as soon as possible, the Russians having fought the Nazis for two years and suffering more losses than any other country. They talked for four days and at it's end all parties were satisfied with strategy. At home Roosevelt had visions on vast new post-war reforms- health care and low interest loans for veterans, a promise to give any American a job who wanted one, decent homes for all, the formation of the United Nations among them- but by 1944 the many hard years in office were taking their toll. At 62 years of age his health had begun to fail. Thin, gaunt, physically deteriorating at an alarming rate, his vitality was seemingly gone.

June 6th, 1944 D-Day- after more than two years of waiting, the cross channel invasion of Europe finally began with the largest armada in history. Within a year the Germans would be driven back to Berlin. Roosevelt had taken a weak, ill-prepared nation into battle against the mightiest war machine the world had ever known. His health by this point was quickly waning. Lonely in his private life- with his mother passed on, the children grown and Eleanor constantly traveling in support of the war movement, he was reacquainted with Lucy Mercer for dinners and personal companionship. He campaigned for reelection in the fall of 1944, won a fourth term as president, and in January 1945 Roosevelt took office once last time. Two days after taking office he met with Churchill and Stalin in Yalta for the final time to discuss post-war policies, with the alliance falling apart over dissimilar visions of peacetime Europe. In March 1945 he retreated to Warm Springs for rest, hoping to regain a measure of his strength; he would never again leave. On April 12, 1945 he complained of having a terrible headache, collapsed, and never regained consciousness. His body was taken back to Washington by train- a train met by thousands upon thousands of devoted, loving Americans, openly grieving for the loss of the nation's greatest leader since Abraham Lincoln.


Presentation here is in 1:33:1 fullscreen. Untold dozens of film clips and photographs are interspersed from both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's earliest days on, with much early 1920's footage of the young FDR that I have never before seen. Most of the footage looks very good given it's age, and modern footage is fine as well, a bit soft at times but all in all a great looking 2 disc set.


Audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0. Narrated by the voice of David McCullough of many PBS documentaries, the sound here is clear, easy to understand and fine for documentary purposes.


There are no extras here, just the documentary itself.


This is an engulfing documentary, over 4 hours of storytelling in a style common to PBS biographies since "Ken Burn's The Civil War" revolutionized the manner in which documentaries are conceived and produced. Several notable interviewees are included here- both FDR's and Churchill's grandchildren, members of his administration, various biographers and even journalist Alistair Cooke all telling anecdotes as well as giving their perspectives. In the process we are given many angles and a very good sense of the man overall, as well as glimpses into the life of wife Eleanor. Disc two was particularly involving as it deals with an America ever-changing. I've been a history buff most of my life but have never looked into the FDR years in any other aspect than WWII related pieces, so this was a pleasant experience for me. Anyone looking for insight into the life and times of FDR would do well to watch this set. Highly recommended.
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