Woodrow as Othello 'The American Experience' Draws on a Tragic Majesty to Spice Up the Life of President Wilson

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Byline: Ted Cox Daily Herald TV/Radio Columnist

Over the years, the excellent PBS series "The American Experience" has made history seem not just entertaining but sometimes downright captivating. Yet a dry subject like Woodrow Wilson is apt to test even its limits.

With the two-part, three-hour "Woodrow Wilson," "The American Experience" proves up to the challenge - perhaps to a fault. Wilson, long typecast in history as an overly analytical intellectual -"a cold fish," as one historian admits - is revealed to be an emotional man and even something of a romantic Lothario.

Yet, in giving his life a tragic scope, "The American Experience" goes too far. Like the recent feature-film biopics "Ali" and "A Beautiful Mind," "Woodrow Wilson" takes liberties with its subject in order to make the story more compelling. This makes for one instance where "The American Experience" comes to favor tragedy over historical accuracy.

The first part, "A Passionate Man," airing at 8 p.m. Sunday on WTTW Channel 11, reveals the turbulent emotions hidden beneath Wilson's dour exterior. If his contemporary Buster Keaton hadn't become known as "the great stone face," the nickname might have stuck to Wilson, with his prim spectacles and his almost comical fedora with the brim always turned up.

Behind his puritanical facade, however, Wilson was an emotional man. His relationship with his first wife, Ellen, will resonate for readers of David McCullough's recent book "John Adams," given that president's critical relationship with his wife, Abigail. (Oddly enough, McCullough is not around to serve his usual host duties with this "American Experience"; instead, Linda Hunt narrates.)

It's fine to know that Wilson was not the stoic figure he is usually made out to be in the history books. He even has what Henry Hyde would call a "youthful indiscretion" (tastefully depicted as a game of croquet in Bermuda). Yet several times the documentary seems not to draw attention to Wilson's inevitable shortcomings, but to bend over backward apologizing for them.

Wilson, unlike Adams, comes to dominate his relationship with his wife, who gives up her career as an artist to serve his ambitions. He fights patrician elitism while head of Princeton, but loses the battle. As president, he claims to serve progressive interests, and indeed oversees key labor reforms but sells out on civil rights.

"On the subject of race relations, Woodrow Wilson was deficient," admits one historian, and then the documentary simply moves on to discuss how he anguished over World War I.

The documentary admits Wilson's faults but never gives full voice to his critics. It could have used a dose of contemporary commentary from someone like H. …