Paramount // 1996 // 225 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // May 24th, 2006
"Somebody once said that if you took all of Theodore and put him into a pot and boiled him down and down, what you'd have left at the bottom of the pot is the preacher-militant." -- David McCullough
Someone once called him "a steam engine in trousers," a phrase which could only have been coined in an era where Freud was still forming theories that could be taken without a trace of irony. Indeed, all of America in the Gilded Age acted like it had a steam engine in its trousers. Theodore Roosevelt was a man made for these years, the industrial bustle of the early twentieth century.
A driven reformer and moralist, Teddy Roosevelt rose through the ranks of politics, in spite of refusing to knuckle under to his own party's demands. Indeed, Roosevelt only became vice-president to McKinley as a way of neutralizing him -- until McKinley was assassinated in 1901. His reputation as a "trust-buster" is really inflated: he fought only those corporations that directly resisted him and challenged his authority, turning what we now think of as a moral crusade into more of a territorial pissing contest. How did he build the Panama Canal? He fomented a revolution in order to get a favorable real estate deal. Ah, those were the days.
Roosevelt became a politician merely because "he loved power." He loved making speeches, picking fights (sometimes physical ones), and portraying the world in purely Manichean terms. He was always the good guy; his opponents were always corrupt and evil. Nowadays, we tend to favor certain battles Roosevelt waged (labor reform) and frown at others (his belief that war was good and glorious). In fact, Roosevelt's desire for war was so great that he went behind President McKinley's back and organized the Spanish-American War on his own. Then he donned a Brooks Brothers custom uniform and marched off to be a hero, inviting all his friends (dilettantes and cowboys alike) along like they were going to put on a charity show to save the orphanage. Of course, he didn't forget a movie camera and a publicist.
A couple of years back, I reviewed a History Channel documentary, American Lion, chronicling the life of Teddy Roosevelt, one of the most memorable figures in twentieth century American politics. PBS turned in its own version of the story back in 1996, now emerging on DVD a decade later. The usual PBS suspects (oh, there's David McCullough!), led by narrator Jason Robards, turn up to tell the familiar story: how the young Teddy survived debilitating asthma, then strove to compensate for his childhood weakness by becoming the ultimate he-man. Teddy's privileged childhood gave his later populism (born of his family's philanthropy) a somewhat patronizing character, but his contributions to social reform and environmental protection are the real deal.
The first half of the documentary tracks Roosevelt from childhood to his reelection in 1904. The second half slows down to cover the second term and the post-presidency "Bull Moose" years -- proof of Roosevelt's overwhelming personal ambition and borderline demagoguery. The consistent theme is that of a boisterous man who lived life to every extreme. But beyond that, TR does not have a particular biographical ax to grind. To even call this documentary TR makes Roosevelt come across as a cipher, a pair of abstract initials. Chalking up Roosevelt's political ambitions to simply "he loved power" suggests an effort by writers David Grubin and Geoffrey C. Ward (who pens a lot of Ken Burns's stuff) to resist psychoanalytic readings. Jason Robards's gravelly narration does make Roosevelt's life rather more hard-boiled than the time period calls for, but it keeps the story from drying out. But what really makes Roosevelt tick? If anything, TR implies that this formerly bookish child willingly hid his intellect in favor of making himself into a creature of pure will. When you hear the story of how Roosevelt, running against his own Republican Party as a Progressive in 1912, took an assassin's bullet and still made an hour-and-a-half speech before his aides could convince him to go to the hospital -- well, that may be the sign of a man who is stubborn that sake of being stubborn.
This not being a Ken Burns production, TR is treated rather indifferently on DVD. No extras, no subtitles, no bells and whistles -- just a solid documentary that covers the necessary bases without any real surprises. If you don't know Teddy Roosevelt, TR is a great way to learn about the man and his times. It is more traditional and proper than the History Channel's American Lion, and I really cannot recommend one show over the other. If you prefer the soothing voice of PBS over the more energetic (and occasionally hysterical) voice of the History Channel, so be it.
One of the most telling lines comes second-hand from David McCullough. Roosevelt, surrounded by hazards out West -- grizzly bears and other threats to his life -- comments on his fears: "There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid...but by acting as if I was not afraid...I found I wasn't afraid at all." This really sums up both the personality of Teddy Roosevelt and the personality of an America climbing from its adolescence onto the world stage. Pure will, belief in one's strength, creates that very strength. Such force of will would thrust America forward for much of the next century -- at least until the 1960s -- Vietnam abroad and the culture clash over civil rights at home -- when we learned that just believing you are right does not make it so.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 225 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theodore Roosevelt Association