Last night, at the end of the fourth episode of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, we saw Ken Burns do something pretty special. If Franklin Delano Roosevelt is known for one moment, it’s his speech in which he utters the phrase, “The one thing we have to fear is fear itself,” which served as a rallying cry that helped the nation overcome the Great Depression.
Burns leavens that speech with nuanced complexity. We hear FDR say those words, and then Burns cuts to writer Jonathan Alter who upends the moment by reminding us that those words are “inspired nonsense.”
The idea that the only thing Americans had to fear was fear was utterly untrue. Tonight, the episode opens with the speech and the conditions that surrounded it, including the quarter to a third of Americans out of work. Fascism was rising in Europe. People were in dire straits.
But last night Alter also connected the moment to “Excalibur being pulled from the stone.” What that did was propel us, the audience, forward by connecting FDR to the same mythology that saved the country.
Burns infuses the myth-making with life even when he paradoxically grounds it in the more complex, sordid reality. This can only be done by a filmmaker who happens to also be a complete human being.
“It’s the kind of slight of hand that humans have to perform to keep the wolf from the door,” Burns told me of the speech. “And what’s the wolf at the door? You and I are not getting out of this alive. An exception will not be made in our case, so that we’ll live forever. So what are you going to do with that? Are you going to curl up into a fetal position? Sure. It’s a reasonable existential response to that reality.”
Burns and I spoke a lot about fear in an extended interview published as a Kindle Single. Throughout his childhood, Burns’s mother was dying of cancer, before she passed when he was 11. He recalled how he would get terrible stomachaches and couldn’t sleep as a child. His parents took him to a psychiatrist, as he became increasingly anxious about the world around him, including the turmoil of the Civil Rights struggle in the South.
“I got really anxious about the dogs and the fire hoses at Selma,” he said. “There was a cancer that was killing my country and there was a cancer that was killing my family and I allowed the transfer to take place.”
So what does one do with the fear?
“You make art, you make music, you have ideas,” Burns said. “You come to people, you talk, you make films, you write, whatever it is.”
“Theodore had it easy. He was borderline crazy, depressive. With insanity and alcoholism running in the family,” Burns added. “It’s interesting that Franklin Roosevelt, the greater president and the greater human being, if we’re allowed to be so arrogantly judgmental, is someone who couldn’t outrun his demons. He was in a f—- wheel chair.”
To Burns, The Roosevelts is about the human condition. That’s why their story can be so intimate.