War hero to White House: History Channel presents the story of President Ulysses S. Grant

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Kyla Brewer / TV Media
Justin Salinger stars in "Grant"

Justin Salinger stars in "Grant"

As a presidential election looms before Americans, television dives into the past to tell the story of one of the nation's most influential figures. Reenactments, expert commentary and archival imagery trace the life of a former president from humble beginnings to battlefield glory to the White House and beyond in this new television event.

Justin Salinger ("Enduring Love," 2004) stars as Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, in the three-night presentation of the miniseries "Grant," beginning on Memorial Day, Monday, May 25, and continuing the following two evenings on History Channel. The six-hour program shines a spotlight on a man many experts feel has been largely forgotten, despite his achievements on the battlefield and in the White House.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow, actor-producer Leonardo DiCaprio ("Titanic," 1997) and producer Jennifer Davisson ("Orphan," 2009) serve as executive producers for the epic from RadicalMedia, in association with Lionsgate.

This new series follows the success of History Channel's recent miniseries "Washington," which told the story of the nation's first president, George Washington. When it premiered in February, "Washington" pulled in top ratings for History Channel, making it the No. 1 miniseries on cable in nearly three years, with more than 2.5 million viewers. Such shows are hallmarks of History Channel's traditional programming, and it looks as if the network is eager to continue its foray into historical presidencies.

"Ulysses S. Grant is one of our most brilliant, yet misunderstood presidents, and History is committed to telling the compelling stories, like his, of those who have shaped our great nation," History Channel executive Eli Lehrer said. "This is an important part of American history that deserves to be told, and we look forward to delivering our latest premium core history documentary series to our audience."

While Grant, much like Washington, was a famed general and politician, the new miniseries reveals that many of his contributions to American history have been underappreciated. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point as a young man, where he established himself as a proficient horseman. He soon rose through the military ranks and ended up saving the nation on more than one occasion. He served his country during the Civil War and also during Reconstruction as he tried to reconcile the North and the South. He judiciously defended the voting rights of millions of formerly enslaved people. Yet, according to an official news release for the miniseries, his story has been "tarnished by a fog of myth, rumor and falsehood."

In addition to Salinger's portrayal of the president during the show's dramatic segments, "Grant" also includes performances by newcomer Dianne Simpson as his wife, first lady Julia Grant, and Carel Nel ("Hum," 2016) as the nation's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

Justin Salinger as seen in "Grant"

Justin Salinger as seen in "Grant"

The miniseries is much more than a standard biopic. A variety of experts add credence to the program's claims with insight into the man behind the myth. A renowned journalist, historian and biographer, Chernow has written many award-winning books on historical figures, including one about Grant. The New York Times named Chernow's acclaimed "Grant" one of the 10 Best Books of 2017. The author is interviewed throughout History's new miniseries, along with other experts, such as one-time CIA director and retired United States Army general David Petraeus. The program also features interviews with journalist and award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as West Point English professor Elizabeth Samet.

In the show's trailer, Grant is called a plethora of contradictory things: "the first modern American warrior," "a bloody butcher," "a corrupt president," "a belligerent drunk," "the greatest general of his time" and even "the unheroic hero of our greatest national epic." That's a lot of ground to cover, but luckily there are plenty of heavy hitters behind the scenes with experience telling such legendary stories.

Most television viewers probably recognize DiCaprio, the producer of the miniseries, from his big-screen film roles in such movies as "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993), "Titanic" (1997), "Catch Me If You Can" (2002) and "Inception" (2010). More recently, he hit the screen alongside Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (2019), for which DiCaprio snagged another Oscar nomination.

In recent years, he's been proving himself a formidable force as a producer, too. He appears to have a particular affinity for historical tales, many of which he produces through his film production company Appian Way Productions, where fellow "Grant" executive producer Davisson serves as president of production. Founded in 2004, the company has explored history in several of its films, beginning with "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" in 2004. DiCaprio starred as Howard Hughes in Appian's biopic "The Aviator" that same year. Other Appian Way works inspired by historical events include "Public Enemies" (2009), "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013), "Richard Jewell" (2019) and "The Revenant" (2015) -- the latter won DiCaprio his first Academy Award.

With such talent onscreen and behind the scenes, History Channel's latest miniseries is poised to offer TV viewers a balanced exploration of the 18th president's life. Don't miss the premiere of "Grant," airing on Memorial Day, Monday, May 25.