It's not uncommon to hear the phrase "an American Original" bandied about these days, usually in the context of someone selling something. These attempts to cheapen its meaning are regrettable, for there have been a few true "American Originals" of note over the course of the country's relatively short history that are more worthy of celebration than, say, a perfume. The two-DVD release of the History Channel's documentary Teddy Roosevelt: An American Lion charts the life of the nation's 26th President, an entirely true American original. Using archival motion picture footage (I was frankly surprised that so much existed), photographs, and interviews with such politicos as President William Jefferson Clinton, Governor George Pataki, and strategist and Presidential Advisor Karl Rove, as well as historians and authors such as Edmund Morris, John Milton Cooper, Kathleen Dalton, and H.W. Brands, An American Lion is an excellent and exhaustive biographical account, as well as a good introduction to the times and society that both shaped the man and were equally shaped by him in return.
Roosevelt's accomplishments in his 60 years are nothing short of extraordinary, regardless of one's seating on the political fence. Among his most notable achievements: he was the youngest member of the New York State Assembly; Civil Service Commissioner for President Benjamin Harrison; Police Commissioner of the City of New York; Assistant Secretary to the United States Navy; a full Colonel in the U.S. Army and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor (bestowed by President William Jefferson Clinton, and the only President to receive it); Governor of the State of New York; Vice President to President William McKinley; and, after McKinley's assassination, President of the United States. The above, it must be noted, was accomplished before his 43rd birthday.
Born in New York City in 1858 (on 28 E. 20th Street, to be exact) into one of the city's oldest and most respected families, TR (as he was affectionately called) was a sickly child who suffered from a crippling asthma. An American Lion provides some valuable insight into the man as child: TR had become so strong-willed at such an early age that he kept his asthma at bay by employing a physical regiment that medical experts thought dangerous. His efforts were successful, and it is not difficult to surmise that his unshakable faith (to many arrogant belief) in himself found its firm roots through this event. TR's intellect also matched his drive, which was formidable from early childhood and ultimately led him to Harvard, where he excelled both athletically and academically. After completing his collegiate studies, TR returned to New York City and immediately threw his hat into the ring (that expression comes from TR as well) of local New York politics, much to him family's early concern and chagrin.
His ascent through the American political system is remarkable for its speed, its cavalier nature, and its somewhat peculiar route. Possessed by a strong will and ambition, TR was seldom one who feared making enemies – it was he who popularized the West African proverb, "Speak softly but carry a big stick." (Ironically, he never really did speak softly; the fact that he carried a big stick is beyond question.) With every new office he implemented the changes and innovations he saw fit, often at the expense of those who helped get him to those positions in the first place – when he passionately believed in a cause, he became its most vociferous advocate. For example, when he was Police Commissioner of the City of New York, he implemented the first bicycle patrols, horse drawn wagons, standardized weapons, and brought Jews and women into the department. When re ran once again for President (after his terms for the Republican Party) under the Bull Moose / Progressive Party, he advocated unemployment insurance, pensions, womens' suffrage, minimum wage, worker compensation, and the abolition of child labor. As Assistant Secretary to the Navy, he championed war with the Spanish so vehemently that he resigned his post in order to join the Army. Chomping at the bit for an opportunity to be a soldier (something he had dreamed of since childhood), he formed the celebrated "Rough Riders," a ragtag group if there ever was one, comprised of ivy-league athletes (mostly polo players), Native Americans, and old cowboys. They were a key component to the United States' victory (not to mention for public support), and cemented Roosevelt's popularity and legend with the public.
As his political career advanced, TR was generally perceived as a reformer in the eyes of the American public, and for this he was equally admired and vilified. Undaunted in his belief of a "square deal" for "every" American, he continued to take on larger, powerful interest groups (such as the trusts controlled by Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan). He was also a man of apparently contradictory impulses: an unapologetic imperialist (the Panama Canal was begun in earnest under his direction during his presidency) who could successfully negotiate for peace (he was also the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize). He was a conservationist (his administrations federally protected 250 million acres of land) who, while on safari in Africa, killed approximately 550 large animals. TR craved the spotlight and adoration of the public, but loved nothing more than to be home at his beloved Sagamore Hill on Long Island. His record on race and the treatment of African Americans is not nearly as progressive as many of his other policies, and An American Lion does not shy away from this – and other – shortcomings. It does, however, shy away from an international perspective on TR, which would have been welcome and appropriate given his aggressive international policies. An American Lion wisely decides to let the viewer draw conclusions as to the man from the valuable insights and facts presented during its fascinating and quickly paced three-hour duration, and it successfully sketches a detailed, vivid, and engrossing portrait.
Video: Presented in full frame over two discs, Teddy Roosevelt: An American Lion generally appears satisfactory. There is slight graininess evident throughout its duration, but it is not overly distracting. As noted above, there is a wealth of archival motion footage of the President on display (the quality of which ranges from surprisingly good to not very) and family photographs, which are fascinating. There are also the occasionally staged re-enactments and dramatizations of certain events, such as TR walking down a flight of stairs, forcefully arguing something, charging on San Juan Hill, etc. – luckily, they are brief in nature and as well done as these sort of things can be.
Audio: Presented in DD 2.0, Teddy Roosevelt: An American Lion is given a decent treatment. The narration – by Edward Hermann, always excellent – and vocal rendition of TR by Richard Dreyfuss are always easy to hear, and never muddled or buried in the mix.
Extras: Included as supplements to the two-disc set are a brief Roosevelt Family Tree from Geneology.com; Background and Interesting Facts, which includes about four pages of text; and a selected filmography of Richard Dreyfuss, who acts as the voice of TR in An American Lion. Also included is the A&E Biography (43:12) of Theodore Roosevelt: Roughrider to Rushmore – this inclusion is a bit curious, as it essentially acts as a poor man's substitute to the three hour History Channel treatment.
Final Thoughts: As the first United States President to fully exploit the potential of the press for personal benefit, as well as the one who parlayed the "bully pulpit" of the Presidency and shaped it into a truly activist institution, Teddy Roosevelt's role in American history will forever be unique. His political legacy is mammoth, and he was, in many ways, the perfect compliment to the radically changing times. TR's accomplishments are such that three hours almost feels too short a length to cover them adequately – to its credit, the History Channel achieves an effective balance between the personal and the political, and a clear, vivid portrait of the man (and his times) emerges. When a relative of TR cannily describes him as wanting to be "...the bride at the wedding and the corpse at the funeral," it's hard not to laugh – this aspect of TR comes through loud and clear in An American Lion. Uniquely American, TR and his ambitions were as seemingly boundless as the country's landscape. It's not hard to speculate that his likeness on Mount Rushmore would have been appreciated, even though it might be thought to be a bit on the small side. Recommended to history buffs and anyone else interested in TR and/or the presidency in general.