Filmmaker Ken Burns terms “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” “an American ‘Downton Abbey’ with the extra added attraction that it’s true — a great juicy drama.”
Burns also compared “The Roosevelts” to “House of Cards” — “scheming is one similarity of both series…They’re portraits of deeply flawed, wounded, complex, successful, and powerful people.”
Burns made the comments Sept. 16 at “The Roosevelts and House of Cards: Projections of Power, A Conversation with Ken Burns and Beau Willimon” at Washington’s Warner Theatre.
Willimon, creator of the groundbreaking Netflix series “House of Cards” — and an adviser for “The Roosevelts” — and Burns were joined by Geoffrey C. Ward, writer of “The Roosevelts”, and a collaborator with Burns for 30 years.
Their comments were interspersed with clips from the two hugely popular series.
The three Emmy® winners noted that each of the featured individuals in their respective series: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt; and “House of Cards” Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) had what an FDR aide termed a “thickly forested interior”, filled with similar complexities.
Willimon noted that Francis Underwood, like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, “thrived on ‘You can’t do that’, ‘You mustn’t do that’ — ‘Watch me.'” (Maybe that’s why Willimon gave his lead character the initials F.U.)
The House of Cards’ creator even opined that Franklin Roosevelt “was in many ways similar to Mussolini and Hitler.”
Willimon made a far less controversial comparison: “Francis aspires for Claire’s approval, like FDR always did with Eleanor.”
(One similarity Willimon does not see: “‘House of Cards’ is not really based on the BBC version. We took a few things from it.”)
One similarity Burns and Ward regret is the lack of accuracy in many documentaries and other nonfiction works. No, neither named names.
Burns said, “I’m stunned at how much nonfiction is fiction.”
Ward, a historian and biographer, said, “There’s a lot of vulgar stuff now. No one looks things up…It’s appalling.”
Looking toward the 2016 Presidential election, what can audiences learn from these two shows?
“Don’t settle for less than real leadership,” Ward said to warm applause. Early in the program, he joked, “I intend to vote for Frank Underwood.”
“The Roosevelts’ authenticity reminds us that we can have authentic people as Presidents,” Burns said, “instead of superficiality we dote on in politicians.” He added that “…a complex mixture of strength and weakness defines heroism.”
Willimon noted that “We want our leaders to be saints, perfect, no flaw. On the other hand, we want leaders who can make the hard choices, brutal choices…”
He concluded, “We have the leaders we deserve. The onus is on you.”
With that, the audience left in time to view the third episode of “The Roosevelts”.
(Its first two segments that had premiered so far, got higher ratings than almost all segments of the “Downton Abbey” series, PBS said at the event.)