Judge Maurice Cobbs was disappointed that he never really sang "Tomorrow" with Annie on his knee. That was a cool scene.
An intimate and courageous portrait of a powerful American leader!
Love him or hate him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's unprecedented four-term presidency had more of a lasting and profound effect on the United States than any other presidency since Abraham Lincoln's. A strong but often controversial president, FDR and his "benevolent dictatorship" routinely polarized national opinion, and if we view his terms of office objectively, he left a mixed legacy.
On the one hand, he reinvigorated the American spirit, successfully overcame isolationism, guided the country through World War II, and did more than any other man (with the exception of Winston Churchill) to bring about the destruction of Nazi tyranny. He also prolonged double-digit unemployment during the Great Depression and stopped the recovery of the economy with misguided New Deal policies, championed the brutal dictator Joseph Stalin, and gave in to the pressure from the crackpot Townsend and saddled future generations with Social Security (for which I can never forgive him). But even Roosevelt's missteps and questionable actions while in office cannot diminish the man's legacy, or the true service that he rendered for his country in her time of need. Through subtle manipulation, through open bullying, through sheer force of personality, FDR was determined to see the United States through the Depression and, later, through World War II. Roosevelt, in his first two terms, was not so much a president as a battlefield surgeon—snipping here, patching there, trying desperately to keep his patient alive by whatever means available. And like a battlefield surgeon, Roosevelt could not afford the luxury of second-guessing himself; right or wrong, the American people needed to know that someone was taking action of some kind. As Will Rogers commented, "The whole country's with him, just so he does something. If he burned down the capitol, we'd cheer and say, 'Well, at least he got a fire started somewhere.'"
The excellent stage show FDR takes the president and the turbulent times that forged his presidency out of the history books and brings them to vivid life. Starring Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), this performance of FDR was presented at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. Vaughn is a charismatic Roosevelt, giving a broad performance (as is fitting for a stage production) and mixing just the right amount of avuncular charm and fiery resolve. He paints a portrait of the 32nd president through reminiscence and dramatization, accented by photographs and footage of important figures from the Roosevelt years, such as Harry Hopkins, Winston Churchill, Henry Morganthal, and of course Eleanor Roosevelt. We learn of FDR's public struggles—against public critics, against Congress, against the Supreme Court—as well as his private ones…like trying to stand on his own for even a few minutes at a time without aid. And although much is covered, many interesting tidbits are not—the plot to overthrow Roosevelt is only alluded to in the vaguest possible sense, for instance—but for the most part, the show is comprehensive and presents a good overview of the man and his times. I was surprised, and delighted, that the show made mention of Roosevelt's discreet affair with his favorite mistress, Lucy Mercer (although his other two mistresses are not mentioned).
In fact, I was delighted by the overall show; it is wonderful to watch. It's a performance that is full of information, and even better, full of life. I felt as though I should be sitting Indian-style on the floor in front of the TV while Vaughn, so believable as FDR, spun stories and dramatized interactions with those closest to him. It's the way history should be taught—not as a collection of dry facts and dates to be memorized, but as a vibrant, colorful record of our country's past. On this level, the show succeeds brilliantly.
So why such a low score for such a great show? In a word: quality—as in "a distinct lack of." The DVD looks terrible. The picture is grainy, often out of focus, and speckled with scratches and dirt. The camera work is often shaky, and the cameraman never misses an opportunity to frame a shot badly, cutting off the top of FDR's head, for instance, even in wide shots. The sound is adequate—nothing is lost, even if there is a fair amount of garbage and even a little distortion. That's somewhat understandable; after all, to expect perfect sound from a live theater performance would be unreasonable. But nevertheless, the amateurish quality of the video detracts somewhat from the excellent performance given by Vaughn, and that's a shame. Also, the back of the package promises letterboxing (which would actually solve some of the framing problems), but the disc is definitely full frame. What gives, guys?
I've a sneaking suspicion that this won't find its way into the collections of many hardcore DVD fans, unless they just happen to be FDR buffs. This is the sort of thing that is tailor made for harried American history teachers to put on during class so that they can slip into the janitor's closet and nip a little courage from the bottle while the little monsters sit dazed in front of the only thing that they pay attention to anymore: the TV. And that's fine. If any group of Americans deserves a drink, it's our teachers. And this selection is both entertaining and educational, a fine overview of one of the most respected figures in American history. Grand!
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