Survivor Goes to Antarctica

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HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS

Members of the Shackleton-Rowett expedition

Popular history is like a polar ice shelf. It encases a certain figure, event or phenomenon in its deep freeze for ages; then, inexplicably, the surface cracks, and the glacier heaves it up: the presidency of John Adams! The invention of longitude! The history of cod!

Now, nearly 90 years after his failed 1914-16 effort to traverse Antarctica, British explorer Ernest Shackleton has become the hottest guy to battle icebergs since Leonardo DiCaprio. Caroline Alexander has published The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition; leadership tomes explicate the explorer's lessons for middle managers. PBS has just aired Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance, which was also adapted for IMAX theaters. Now comes the A&E mini-series Shackleton (April 7, 8 p.m. E.T., and April 8, 9 p.m. E.T.)--with a Biography episode (April 8, 8 p.m. E.T.) thrown in for the compleat Shackle-phile.

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All this for an also-ran explorer whose legacy is the inspiring result of his great failure. We meet Shackleton (Kenneth Branagh) on a lecture tour, when he learns that Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen has beaten him to the South Pole, a voyage he has tried and failed at. Undaunted, he vows to become the first to cross Antarctica. His wife (Phoebe Nicholls) pleads with him to keep his promise to stay home and go into business. "I'm not a salesman," he demurs.

Less-true words have rarely been spoken. The adventurer, played with noble, doomed optimism by Branagh, is a shoeshine-and-a-smile pitchman nonpareil, hawking his expedition to dowagers and businessmen, whose names he promises to plant on newfound territories. He even lends his name to an Antarctic-themed dog-food ad. He finds funding, a ship--the Endurance--and a crew, selling them on their chances despite the encroachment of World War I and a thickening ice pack. And after the ship gets trapped in the ice, he uses his dogged charisma to lead 27 freezing men as they trudge and paddle for months through the polar wastes toward rescue.

Like a doughty icebreaker, the mini-series is slow to gather steam, and writer-director Charles Sturridge's script veers toward the overdramatic. But Branagh makes Shackleton a very human icon, hubristic but good-humored. The explorer later died trying another Antarctic mission, so one shouldn't oversell his lessons. Still, Shackleton is a well-executed reminder that failure can breed success.