Historical documentaries have changed forever. Reduced attention spans have spelled the end of the wistful images and genteel music of the Ken Burns style of documentary making. Now, actors and live action fill the time between the insight provided by “experts.” The word of historians apparently ring hollow, so the new style also interjects opinions from biographers, celebrities, and even former Presidents.
Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s production of “Washington” exemplifies this new breed of historical documentary. British stage actor, Nicholas Rowe, has the unenviable task of humanizing the marble face of George Washington. The purpose of this production is to present the Father of our country, “warts and all.” The production values are commendable and most of the actors do justice to their historical characters. All of the historic vignettes are competently staged, though do not rise to the level of a Hollywood production. It is not too hard to imagine what an extra episode could have contributed, as large segments of Washington’s career are passed over. Too often, the depictions rely on the performances, which are acceptable, but not necessarily moving.
A diverse collection of scholars is assembled by Kearns-Goodwin. Joe Ellis, Jon Meacham, Joanne Freeman, and Alan Taylor provide valuable insights into 18th century American life, as well as Washington’s complicated character. Ellis stands out as the authoritative voice among the academic contributors. Colin Powell’s insights into military logistics, strategy, and leadership are especially valuable. Bill Clinton’s contributions are surprisingly pedestrian, his presence must be seen as promotional. To emphasize Washington’s slave-owning, Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Annette Gordon-Reed are called upon to explain these experiences, though both offer plenty of digression. The most interesting contributor is “biographer,” Alexis Coe. She’s recently written an irreverent biography of Washington and served here as a co-producer. The producers must have seen her value in appealing to millennials.
It is most satisfying to see the History Channel producing content about history again. Despite the cinematic limitations and inconsistent insights, “Washington” does make for three nights of enjoyable viewing.