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Monday, 29 September 2014

Ken Burns Premiers The Roosevelts at the US Embassy in London

Michael Patrick Cullinane

Iconic documentarian Ken Burns promoted his latest film, The Roosevelts, as “an American Downton Abbey, only true.”  On September 22 he launched
the British release of the 14-hour, 7-part series at the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square by screening a one-hour clip that, not surprisingly, detailed the wellspring of the “special relationship” and the accord between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.  After the curtain closed and applause receded, Stanley Tucci, star of The Lovely Bones and The Devil Wears Prada, asked Burns about his style and method.  To the surprise of most listeners, Burns admitted he starts with the music, before the script or the visual, to build suspense and inject emotion.  The voices come next.  An all-star cast, including Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatta, and Ed Herrmann read in place of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor in his latest release, but Burns waxed anecdotally about Tom Hanks, Gregory Peck, and Shelby Foot in films gone-by.  It’s clear that Burns has become as much a celebrity as these figures.

The Roosevelts represent a nearly 8-year labor of love, and one written almost entirely by Geoffrey Ward, the biographer of Franklin Roosevelt and long-time collaborator with Burns.  Billed as the most influential political family in American history--no small claim given the place of the Adams’s, Kennedy’s, Bush’s, and Clinton’s--the Roosevelts are presented here as transformative figures, that brought progressive and liberal ideas such as the welfare system, universal suffrage, and direct democracy to the United States.  Burns admitted that this progressive legacy is what captivated him most and hopes the message will resonate with viewers.  Perhaps it seems an overstatement to suggest that Burns’s The Roosevelts will shape our popular memory of these historical figures for years to come, but with 9 million viewers in the United States (second only to Sunday football), it has infiltrated American households like no other film has for quite some time.

The Roosevelts will air on PBS America on October 19.  Sky 534 / Virgin 243.

Michael Patrick Cullinane is senior lecturer of US History at Northumbria University and the author of Liberty and American Anti-Imperialism, 1898-1909 (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).  He also publishes on Theodore Roosevelt's legacy in politics and pop culture and is currently writing a comprehensive posthumous biography of Roosevelt's image in public memory.

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