Forget television's assembly-line biographies and cheap films designed to exploit headlines of the moment. That was yesterday. Tonight is one of those times when the medium takes seriously its role as the nation's historian.
One occasion is an elegant and aching documentary about Eleanor Roosevelt for "The American Experience" that runs 2 1/2 simply captivating hours on PBS. To quote her husband's first presidential campaign slogan: Happy days are here again.
The other, on A&E, is "The Crossing," a highly credible, ever-engaging depiction of a huddled George Washington and his scrawny Continental army slipping across the Delaware River on a shivery December evening in 1776, en route to surprising a much superior mercenary force at Trenton, N.J., in one of those seminal events that alter the course of history.
Adapted by Howard Fast from his own book of that title, this account of the crossing is much less glamorous than Emmanuel Leutze's famous painting of a majestic Washington standing so tall through the river mist that you could attach a sail to him.
Jeff Daniels is a persuasively stern and humorless Washington in this small but effective movie that Robert Harmon skillfully directs in a way that makes his cast seem like the big-budget multitudes as battered and exhausted Continental forces rout 1,200 fearsome German Hessians without losing a man.
No false heroics or grandiose Old World pomp in this rewarding piece that makes economy a virtue while liberating the nation's future first president from the shackles of cockeyed legend. Washington glares stonily at the enemy's dying commander who has taken a bullet in the chest, feeling no sorrow for "that stinking mercenary who killed 500 of my men at Brooklyn."
Eleanor Roosevelt made her own momentous Delaware River crossings, metaphorically, in a life of epic tragedy and achievement, one transferred to the small screen with insight and subtlety by that fine actress Jane Alexander in a pair of admirable "Eleanor and Franklin" movies that ran on ABC in 1976-77.
Narrated by Alfre Woodard, this fabulous new biography from Sue Williams and Kathryn Dietz is adoring yet not always complimentary while weaving through the mysterious shadows of Eleanor's life without emerging entirely from the dark. It consists of contemporary footage and obscure home movies intersected by historical interpretation and personal recollections that include her own recorded words and interviews with her closest surviving friends and relatives.
From these it's gleaned that, far from being an ideal mother, she was less attentive to her five children than to her causes, something she apparently felt ever guilty about as she aged and her brood led adult lives beset by problems.
Eleanor's cheerful public aura was belied by periodic "Griselda moods," as she called them, crushing depressions that she said made her "despise" herself and want to weep. A few photos here do appear to capture in her lowered gaze a hint of gloom and melancholy surging from deep within, whether launched by loneliness or by her husband's infidelity or illness.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's early story is famous, having been afflicted in 1921 by polio that withered his legs and put him in a wheelchair, just as his marriage to his distant cousin, Eleanor, had been crippled four years earlier when she learned of his affair with her secretary, Lucy Mercer.
Thereafter they would live apart as man and wife, instead forging a partnership based on shared values, with Eleanor spending as much time as possible at her Vall-Kill home in Hyde Park, N.Y., engendering gossip later when constantly hanging out with former Associated Press reporter Lorena Huckok.
Was their relationship sexual? "I have no idea . . .," says Eleanor's granddaughter, Nina Gibson. "And my feeling about that is, who cares?"
How times and the glare of news have shifted, though, for imagine the volcanic media eruption today if a first lady spent much of her time off to herself at somewhere in the boonies.
In that regard, the Eleanor biography is especially intriguing because of the unmentioned but obvious comparison it evokes between Eleanor--at once berated and beloved while redefining the role of first lady--and another controversial first lady and Democrat whose political prominence enrages her enemies.
She is, of course, U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Clinton, who likely fits the "tough as nails" label that historian Geoffrey Ward tonight applies to the aristocratic, auntie-like Eleanor.
Hillary comes to mind when watching Republicans in 1937 make a point of contrasting Eleanor with the more traditional, demure wife of their own presidential candidate, Al Landon. First comes film of Eleanor in a coal mine, campaigning in front of newsreel cameras in a hard hat. Then comes her counterpart, sweetly playing a harp.