Editor’s Note: This post was intended to be published on Wed. Sept. 17, but snuck its way online on Mon. Sept. 15. Apologies to Doc Soup Man. So come back and read this post after you’ve watched the first three episodes, whether on your PBS station or online!
We’re in the thick of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Ken Burns’s seven-part series with Episode Four airing tonight. What I want to address here is what’s not on the screen, starting with how this series came about.
Burns told me in an extended interview that it began with conversations with one of his primary collaborators, Geoffrey Ward, who wrote The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz, The War and most of his other films, including The Roosevelts.
Ward had written two books on the early years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and they’d been talking about a series since they first began working together. Finally, about eight years ago, they decided to do it, according to Burns.
“Let’s do this,” he recalled saying. “But let’s not just do Franklin. Let’s do them all. And let’s do them as no one has ever done them before, as an intimate family drama.”
You’ll notice that Ward is interviewed in the series, the first time he appears on screen in one of Burns’s films as one of the talking heads. What you may not realize, though, is that Ward contracted polio when he was a child. It’s never mentioned on camera.
And there’s a moment, look for it on Wednesday night, when Ward is discussing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s early struggle with polio. When discussing FDR’s “terror,” Ward displays an emotional depth that is subtle but heart-rending.
“He knows intimately what Roosevelt was going through and viscerally understands it,” Burns told me. “It speaks volumes. We don’t have to say, ‘Geoffrey Ward, polio victim.’ If you don’t know that, it’s OK. You just know that he has extraordinary empathy, which is the only thing that matters.”
It was not a contrived moment, Burns assured me, on Ward’s part. When the writer went in to be taped, he was determined not to get emotional. Burns waited until the end of the interview to really get to the polio questions and Ward “was taken aback and the emotions caught him,” he said. “It was really a great moment. He cursed me afterwards and said, ‘God damn you, Burns, you tricked me.’ But he is very happy that that happened.”
Not noting that Ward had polio reminds me of the iceberg metaphor. You see the tip, not realizing, but being impacted, by what lies beneath.
“We don’t want to treat people like they are idiots,” Burns explained. Like everything he does, the exclusion of Ward’s polio is a considered act, one that fits in his philosophy of filmmaking.
“There are too many neon signs pointing, saying, ‘Hey, did you notice this?’ Burns said. “We know that you are smart people. And then you can find the layers beneath the layers of the film. And you can interpret the film the way you want.”