August 17, 2020
Street Date 8/25/20;
$14.98 two-DVD set;
Stars Nicholas Rowe, James Robinson, Nicholas Audsley, Nia Roberts. Narrated by Jeff Daniels.
This comprehensive study of the life of George Washington, notably produced by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, offers an enlightening and entertaining mix of well-known stories about the famed general, and quite a few that many with which many viewers may be unfamiliar.
The documentary originally aired in three two-hour installments in February on the History channel, and this DVD version is well timed to take advantage of any lingering interest in the founding fathers left over from the buzzworthy Disney+ presentation of Hamilton, as well as the continuing discussions over the appropriate hagiography of America’s historical figures in light of modern attitudes over the rejection of racism.
The first part deals with Washington’s early military career, fighting for the British in the 1754-63 French and Indian War. His inability to rise in the ranks of the British Army spurs him to take command of the Continental Army in the American Revolution, which is covered in the second part. The third part details the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, America’s troubled early attempts at self-rule, the creation of the U.S. Constitution, and Washington’s two terms as America’s first president.
The format relies on dramatic re-creations of key events in Washington’s life, mixed with documentary-style narration from Jeff Daniels, and interspersed with interviews from modern scholars discussing what made Washington an ideal American hero and a unique historical figure.
It’s a bit of a return engagement for Daniels, who played Washington in the 2000 TV movie The Crossing, about the general’s famed boat ride over the Delaware River and the Battle of Trenton.
The documentary is also something of a primer for military history, giving a good overview of battle strategies for many of the key engagements in which Washington was involved.
It’s interesting to see some of the re-creations in light of other recent presentations about the founding of America. For instance, the segment on the Battle of Yorktown offers a number of details that will give viewers a better sense of what they are talking about during the song about the battle in Hamilton.
The narrative doesn’t shy away from examining Washington’s ownership and treatment of his slaves, but it also doesn’t editorialize or pass judgment on him, concluding that it is a complicated issue and leaving the viewer to decide based on the fuller context of the historical record.
The only real quibble with the presentation would be how the show glosses over the final two years of Washington’s life, jumping from the end of his presidency in March 1797 to his death in December 1799. The documentary doesn’t relate many of the details of his “retirement,” during which he tended his farm, expanded production of his branded whiskey, and maintained an active political voice, even accepting command of an army raised in preparation for a potential war with France. Nor does it delve into how he developed the infection that led to his death, working too hard in freezing weather. That his doctors likely bled him to death trying to drain his body of the toxins is, however, well covered.