Theodore Roosevelt is known to Americans as one of the most polarizing figures in the nation’s history. Two terms as the nation’s head resulted in the Square Deal, the construction of the Panama Canal, protection of America’s national parks and so much more. While Roosevelt accomplished so many great deeds during his time in office, his time away from office produced its own share of intriguing accomplishments and stories. One of the most notable of those stories is his journey down the River of Doubt in the Amazon jungle, which would eventually go on to be called the Rio Roosevelt. The river is a tributary of the Amazon, and hundreds of miles long. Now thanks to PBS and Public Media Distribution, the story of Roosevelt’s harrowing journey along the river is finally being told in the form of the new American Experience episode Into The Amazon. Released just last week of DVD and Digital HD, the two-hour program tells the story, which forms the foundation of the program’s presentation. That story will be discussed shortly. The story’s pacing is just as important to note considering its length and how much content is shared throughout. It will be discussed later. Its pictures, footage and cinematography — its aesthetic elements — round out its most important elements. Each element is important in its own right to the program’s whole. All things considered, they make American Experience: Into The Amazon a story that is just as gripping as any major Hollywood blockbuster.
American Experience: Into The Amazon, one of the first episodes of PBS’ hit history-based series to be released so far this new year, is a wonderful start to the year for the network. It is just as wonderful for audiences. That is because this program proves over the course of its two-hour run time to be just as gripping as anything that could be (and has been) churned out by Hollywood’s “Big Six.” That is proven in no small part through the program’s central story. The story follows Theodore Roosevelt’s journey down the River of Doubt, which would go on to be dubbed the Rio Roosevelt in the course of that journey. What makes the story so interesting is that it proves to be fraught with all of the dangers and tensions that one would find, again, in any major Hollywood blockbuster. From hostile natives to the dangers of the river (and the jungle itself) to Roosevelt and Rondon never fully seeing eye to eye — causing plenty of tensions throughout — the story of Roosevelt’s journey offers all of the action and drama that one would ever want. Even more interesting is the revelation that Roosevelt’s desire to travel the river’s length was just because he wanted to escape the emotion of losing out in his bid for a third term as President of the United States. As narrator Oliver Platt points out early on, that decision was not an isolated event. He notes through his narration that Roosevelt made such decisions even earlier in his life. That means it was all part of a pattern of behavior for him. This alone would make this journey a wonderful case study for any psychology student, especially considering that three men — and even Rondon’s dog — died along the way. Roosevelt survived the perilous journey, which is why famed actor Alec Baldwin was able to read his writings an why Platt shared the story. Keeping all of this in mind, this program’s story alone is more than enough reason for audiences to watch this presentation. It has all of the elements of a major Hollywood Blockbuster without all of the falsehoods and over embellishments. It is only one of the elements that makes this episode of American Experience so powerful. The program’s pacing is directly connected to the story, and in turn just as important to note as the story itself.
Into The Amazon‘s pacing is so important to consider in examining this program because there is so much information to take in throughout the course of the story. Considering how much material is shared from start to finish, those behind the program’s creation are to be commended for the manner in which everything was balanced. That includes Roosevelt’s back story and that of Rondon. Even as the group’s journey progresses, the program never allows itself to get too sidetracked by those moments. Instead, it balances them with the rest of the story, maintaining its fluidity. This, again, is one of those areas where far too many fictional Hollywood blockbusters get it wrong, and in turn bog themselves down. No one part of the story or another ever gets too much time here. The result is a story that insures audiences’ engagement from start to end. Keeping that in mind, the pairing of the program’s story with its solid pacing gives audiences plenty to appreciate. Even with this in mind, there is still one more item to discuss in examining the program’s presentation. That item is its collective aesthetic elements (I.E. its pictures, footage, cinematography and even journal readings).
The collective footage, pictures, cinematography and journal readings incorporated into Into The Amazon are so important to its whole because of the fine touch that they add to the program’s viewing experience. The vintage footage and pictures serve to illustrate the story shared by Platt while Baldwin’s readings from Roosevelt’s notes pull viewers even deeper into the story. The modern cinematography that rests alongside the other noted elements makes the story even more engaging because of its sharp look and its angles. The aerials and the water level shots more than prove this. As Platt discusses one member of the party killing another and running away, the camera points at the ground as the man, who is supposed to be the killer, flees. This simple moment adds its own tension (and in turn engagement) to the story, making it that much more enthralling. It is just one of the so many moments when the cinematography shines, too. From one moment to another, the cinematography alone rivals that of so many blockbuster man v. nature movies that have ever been created. When this impressive cinematography couples with the program’s equally important footage, pictures and readings, the whole of these aesthetic elements makes the program’s presentation all the stronger. When they are joined with the story itself and the story’s pacing, the whole of everything proves Into The Amazon this year’s first great documentary, and a work that easily rivals any major Hollywood blockbuster.
American Experience: Into The Amazon is an impressive start for PBS’ already growing list of new home releases this year. Over the course of its two-hour run time, this gripping man versus nature/man versus man story is the first great documentary of the year, and proves once more why PBS remains today the last bastion of truly worthwhile programming on television. It also proves that it is just as good (if not better than) any major Hollywood blockbuster that has ever been crafted. As noted already, that is due in no small part to the program’s story. The story proves it doesn’t need embellishments and half-truths to be engaging and entertaining. The story’s pacing insures even more the program’s strength as do its collective aesthetic elements (cinematography, vintage photos and footage, journal readings). Each element is important in its own right to the program’s whole. All things considered, they make American Experience: Into the Amazon a journey that history buffs and action flick fans alike will appreciate, and that rivals its blockbuster counterparts. It is available now and can be ordered online direct via PBS’ online store. More information on this and other episodes of American Experience is available online now at:
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