WHAT IT’S ABOUT In 1913, former president of the United States Theodore Roosevelt launched what was then blandly called the “Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition.” Along with his son Kermit and famous Brazilian explorer Col. Cândido Rondon, Roosevelt and retinue headed into the Brazilian rainforest to chart the course of a mysterious river in the far western part of the country, known simply as the River of Doubt. It took the party weeks to reach the river and what began as a jaunty adventure soon turned into something entirely different. For his troubles, the river was named “Rio Roosevelt.” This two-hour program has archival footage, plus commentary from various scholars, while Alec Baldwin provides Roosevelt’s voice.
MY SAY There’s a river in Brazil that nearly killed the 26th president. Therein lies a quite a yarn, as you might imagine. Roosevelt later told it himself, in a bestseller he wrote entitled “Through the Brazilian Wilderness.” In that boisterous bully-bully style so many still associate with Roosevelt, he at first relates a tale of a great adventure through the glorious Amazon jungle.
But his tone shifts when he and his entourage finally arrive at the unnamed River of Doubt: “On February 27, 1914, shortly after midday, we started down the River of Doubt into the unknown,” he wrote. “We were quite uncertain whether after a week we should find ourselves in the Gy-Parana [River], or after six weeks in the Madeira [River, a major tributary of the Amazon], or after three months we knew not where. That was why the river was rightly christened the Duvida” — doubt.
As “Into the Amazon” so vividly demonstrates, doubt would become both operative word and theme — also a searing brand on Roosevelt’s psyche. He had finally caught up with his great white whale, and the whale had won. That river would become like something out of Joseph Conrad, or “Apocalypse Now.” It would change him, humble him, and eventually kill him. (Weakened by the ordeal, he died of a blood clot in 1919, five years after the trip. He was only 60).
Roosevelt lived more lives than any American statesmen in history. That river consumed several of them.
If this sounds like hyperbole, then devote two hours to this remarkable program. They won’t be wasted. As a documentary on a well-known historic episode, “Into the Amazon” does everything right, and then some. For example, fresh footage is rendered in black-and-white to match historic footage and stills. It’s seamless and immersive, while the river — in various shades of gray — becomes sinister as opposed to scenic. Baldwin’s narration is muted, just above a whisper. His Roosevelt sounds almost — could it be? — frightened.
Written and directed by veteran “American Experience” producer John Maggio, this is a propulsive story about lost and luckless travelers, forced to confront whatever hell awaits around every bend. Before long, they are stripped right down to their raw nerve-endings.
Months later, Roosevelt finally arrived home, hobbling onto a dock in Oyster Bay. Reporters waiting for him were shocked. He was walking with a cane.
There’s beauty and power in this story, and an unexpectedly emotional payoff. It’s about a father and son, and the primal force that bonds them. It’s about a remarkable Brazilian explorer, Rondon, who taught Roosevelt something about the power, and glory, of nature. It’s about the human relationship — ours as much as his — to the natural world.
Mostly it’s just great.
BOTTOM LINE Extraordinary film about an extraordinary person that is both moving and revelatory.