History's 'TR': We Already Know Ye


The History Channel's TR: An American Lion offers little new information about its subject — the boisterous and adventurous 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

While the four-hour, two-part film is a worthy effort, the documentary deploys the standard format used in many other biographical films. In TR, we a have narrator guiding us through the events of Roosevelt's life with appropriate tones for each situation; the voiceover actor reading the thoughts and words of the president; and insights from historians and family members.

Archival photos and film footage are interwoven with contemporary shots of buildings and locations, and actors portraying certain events in Roosevelt's life provide accompaniment.

Richard Dreyfuss does an able job of rendering Roosevelt's voice, but it takes a while to adjust to him as the president, and not as Dreyfuss.

Amazingly, Roosevelt's life and presidency are often overlooked. While he ranks as one of the nation's top chief executives, popular history tends to focus more on his Mount Rushmore neighbors George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

American Lion gives T.R. his proper respect, but perhaps goes a bit too far in its hero-building. It rightly chronicles his courageous efforts in battle — against Spaniards, big business and his own party — and appropriately acknowledges his presidency as the starting point of the American century.

And there is plenty of information on his efforts to conserve forests and wildlife. But the film pardons his almost insubordinate independence as assistant secretary of the navy and his questionable approach to securing the land for the Panama Canal. It also treads lightly on failures like his action after the Brownsville, Texas, riots.

American Lion is also jarring in one omission: the assassination of TR's predecessor, William McKinley is covered — and the killer is shown — but the name Leon Czolgosz is never uttered.

Four hours are not enough to cover the larger-than-life Roosevelt, but History Channel turns in a decent effort. The documentary is informative and enjoyable, but as with most attempts to cover great historical figures, it falls short of painting the complete picture.

TR: An American Lion debuts tonight (Jan. 20) at 9 p.m. ET, with the second part airing at the same time tomorrow.