The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History Movie Poster Image
Lots of historical detail in evenhanded, traditional docu.
  • NR
  • 2014
  • 840 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The biography treats its subjects with respect and dignity, evenhandedly examining positive and negative aspects of their characters.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Presidents are classic role models, and viewers will learn much more about these two, as well as the women behind the men. Filmmaker Burns amply salutes the ambition and commitment that led Franklin Delano, Theodore, and Eleanor Roosevelt to influence history so profoundly.


There are brief discussions of war and footage and still prints from battlefields; some feature dead bodies (but are not gory and are in black and white). Similarly, there is discussion of taxidermy and hunting, with images of dead animals.


The documentary airs questions about Eleanor Roosevelt's sexuality but does not talk about them at length or make assumptions about her.


A few very mild oaths such as "They'd be damned if they'd give him the medal."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some of the historical figures spotlighted here had drinking problems, which are discussed but not shown.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait is a 14-hour documentary miniseries by filmmaker Ken Burns that delves deeply into the lives of Franklin Delano, Eleanor, and Theodore Roosevelt. If parents can convince kids to watch a documentary with visuals composed of talking-head interviews, historical images, and black-and-white footage, they'll find an unparalleled look into the lives of these great historical figures. The only violent content is a few brief shots of animals dispatched by enthusiastic hunter Teddy Roosevelt and battlefield images that briefly show a dead body. Some speculate that Eleanor Roosevelt was a lesbian; the documentary discusses this topic briefly but does not present any conclusions. This series will be fascinating for historians and adult political junkies, though it would be rather dry and slow-going for kids assigned to write a report on one of the former presidents or the former First Lady.

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What's the story?

Documentarian Ken Burns strikes again in THE ROOSEVELTS: AN INTIMATE HISTORY, a 14-hour miniseries that traces the lives of former presidents Franklin Delano and Theodore Roosevelt and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Pulling together rare archival footage and images, the documentary digs deeply into the lives of these three great historical influencers. From their patrician childhoods in New York, through obstacles and experiences that convinced each that they could play a part in American history, to the ways each changed the world around them, THE ROOSEVELTS are amply explored by this meaty and thoughtful series. Meryl Streep narrates writings of Eleanor Roosevelt; Paul Giamatti stands in for Theodore Roosevelt; and Edward Hermann voices FDR.

Is it any good?

Devotees of Burns' lively documentary style who have already lapped up his views on baseball, Prohibition, the Dust Bowl, and other historical topics will be eager to catch this film, too. And they won't be disappointed, for, as one of the biographers interviewed for the series says about the Roosevelts, "No other family has touched so many American lives." Doubt it? Together, Theodore Roosevelt and FDR served for almost half of the first 45 years of the 20th-century American presidency, and Eleanor remains one of the most famous and influential women not only in the White House but in U.S. history.

But under Burns' gaze, the Roosevelts emerge as real people, not only a few paragraphs on Wikipedia or in a history textbook. Teddy Roosevelt's bloodlust and belligerent imperialism; the distinct possibility that Eleanor Roosevelt was gay and cheating on her husband; FDR's own mistresses and mistakes during WWII and the Great Depression -- all these and other gossipy topics are given an airing. However, they're presented in the context of entire lives. There are moments in which each of the Roosevelts acted in ways both foolish and valiant. That Burns manages to present such complete pictures of long-dead figures is a triumph, and this doc is a treat for history lovers.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why this miniseries takes up 14 hours. What about the lives of the Roosevelts is so interesting or important that it merits such a long cinematic treatment?

  • "The Ken Burns Effect" is a photographic effect available on filmmaking software such as iMovie and Final Cut Pro X. Without knowing what that is, and having watched at least part of The Roosevelts, can you guess what it is?

  • Does the filmmaker behind this documentary like his subjects? How can you tell? What about the way they're presented brings you to this conclusion?

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