“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

 

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

Twenty-four years before the award-winning HBO miniseries “JOHN ADAMS” aired, the CBS network aired a miniseries about the first U.S. President, George Washington. Simply titled “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, this three-part miniseries was based upon two biographies written by James Thomas Flexner – 1965’s “George Washington, the Forge of Experience, 1732–1775” and 1968’s “George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775–1783”

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” spanned at least forty years in the life of the first president – from 1743, when his father Augustine Washington died from a sudden illness; to 1783, when Washington bid good-bye to the officers who had served under him during the American Revolutionary War. The miniseries covered some of the major events of Washington’s life:

*His training and profession as a surveyor of Western lands
*His experiences as an officer of the Virginia militia during the Seven Years War
*His friendship with neighbors George William and Sally Cary Fairfax between the 1750s and the 1770s
*The romantic feelings between him and Sally Fairfax
*His marriage to widow Martha Dandridge Custis and his role as stepfather to her two children
*His life as a Virginia planter
*His role as a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses
*His growing disenchantment with the British Parliament
*His brief experiences as a representative of the Second Continental Congress
*And his experiences as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army

Actually, one half of the miniseries covered Washington’s life from his childhood to his years as a Virginia planter. The other half covered his experiences during the American Revolution. Glancing at the list above, I realized that “GEORGE WASHINGTON”covered a great deal in Washington’s life. More importantly, Jon Boothe and Richard Fielder did a first-rate job by delving into the many aspects of the man’s life and his relationships with great details and depth. This was especially apparent in Washington’s relationships with his controlling mother, Mary Ball Washington; his friendship with George William Fairfax; his light romance with Sally Fairfax; his relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution and especially his marriage to Martha Custis.

I found it interesting that the miniseries managed to convey how difficult and controlling Mary Washington was as a parent. However, I found it slightly disappointing that the miniseries did not further explore Washington’s relationship with his mother, once he became swept up into the Seven Year’s War – especially since she had survived long enough to witness him become the first U.S. president.

Washington’s relationship with George William “Will” Fairfax proved to be a complex matter for two reasons. One, Will Fairfax had remained loyal to the British Crown throughout his life. During the decade leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution, that relationship threatened to fall apart due to the two friends’ different political belief – something I was happy to see that the miniseries had conveyed. Another aspect that posed a threat to Washington’s friendship with Fairfax was his romantic feelings for the man’s wife, Sally Fairfax . . . and her feelings for him. There have been rumors that Washington’s relationship with Sally had led to physical adultery, but no proof. But there is proof that they had strong feelings for one another and the miniseries; due to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay, along with the performances of Barry Bostwick and Jaclyn Smith; did an excellent job of conveying the pair’s emotional regard for each other in a subtle and elegant manner. What I found even more amazing was the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s courtship of and his marriage to Martha Custis. I was surprised that Boothe and Fiedler had portrayed Washington’s feelings toward her with such ambiguity. This left me wondering if he had married her for love . . . or for her fortune. By the last half hour or so of the miniseries, Washington finally admitted to Martha that he did love her. However, the manner in which Bostwick portrayed that scene, I found myself wondering if Washington was himself amazed by how much his feelings for Martha had grown.

I do not know what to say about the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution. I do not doubt that his aides were loyal to him or probably even worship him. But I must admit that it seemed the miniseries’ portrayal of this relationship seemed to make Washington’s character just a touch too ideal for my tastes. In fact, one of the miniseries’ main problems seemed to be its idealistic portrayal of the main character. Aside from Washington’s bouts of quick temper, his ambiguous affections for his wife Martha, and his cold relationship with his less than ideal stepson, John “Jacky” Parke Custis; the miniseries made very little effort to portray Washington in any negative light. In fact, Washington’s demand for higher rank within the Virginia militia and British Army during the Seven Years War is portrayed as justified, thanks to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay. Personally, I found his demand rather arrogant, considering his young age (early to mid-20s) and limited training and experience as a military officer at the time. Not only did I found his demand arrogant, but also rather astounding. What I found even more astounding was the miniseries’ attitude that television viewers were supposed to automatically sympathize with Washington’s demands.

The miniseries’ portrayal of Washington in the second half – the period that covered the American Revolution – nearly portrayed the planter-turned-commander as a demigod. Honestly. Aside from his occasional bursts of temper, General George Washington of the Continental Army – at least in this miniseries – was a man who could do no wrong. And at times, I found this rather boring. I cannot recall any moment during the miniseries’ second half that questioned Washington’s decisions or behavior. Most of his military failures were blamed on either military rivals or limited support from the Continental Congress.

And then . . . there was the matter of black soldiers serving in the Continental Army. According to “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, Southern representative in Congress wanted blacks – whether they were former slaves or freemen – banned from serving in the army. It was Washington who demanded that Congress allow black men to fight alongside white men in the country’s rebellion against the British Empire. By the way . . . this was a complete lie. Despite black men fighting in the Massachusetts militias during the Battles at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington signed an order forbidding them to become part of the Continental Army when the white New England militiamen did. Come to think of it, when it came to racism and slavery, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” presented a completely whitewashed portrait of the future president. The miniseries even featured a pre-war scene in which Washington prevented his overseer from breaking apart slave families at Mount Vernon by selling some of the slaves for needed funds for the plantation. In reality, Washington was not above selling off slaves or breaking up families for the sake of profit or punishing a slave. At a time when historians and many factions of the American public were willing to view the Founding Fathers in a more ambiguous light; Fiedler and co-producers Buzz Kulik and David Gerber lacked the guts to portray Washington with a bit more honestly . . . especially in regard to race and slavery. If they had been more honest, they could have portrayed Washington’s growing unease over slavery and race, following Congress’ decision to allow them within the ranks of the Continental Army in 1777. Unfortunately, putting Washington on a pedestal seemed more important than allowing him some semblance of character development.

Production wise, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” struck me as first-rate. The miniseries had been shot in locales in Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania, adding to the production’s 18th century Colonial America atmosphere. I cannot say whether Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography also contributed to the miniseries’ setting. If I must be honest, I did not find his photography that memorable. But I was impressed by Alfred Sweeney’s production designs, along with Sig Tingloff’s art direction and Arthur Jeph Parker’s set decorations. However, I had a problem with the costume choices selected by a costume team supervised by Michael W. Hoffman. To be honest, I did not have much trouble with the costumes for the men. The women’s costumes proved to be another man. A good deal of the story is set among the colonial Virginia gentry. I hate to say this, but I found a good deal of the women’s costumes less than impressive. They looked as if they came straight from a costume warehouse in the middle of Hollywood. I especially had a problem with Jaclyn Smith’s wardrobe as Sally Fairfax. I realize that she is supposed to be an 18th century version of a Southern belle. But there were one or two costumes that seemed to be some confusing mixture of mid 18th and mid 19th centuries. Yikes.

I certainly had no problem with the performances featured in the 1984 miniseries. The latter featured solid performances from legendary actors like Lloyd Bridges, Jose Ferrer, Trevor Howard, Jeremy Kemp, Clive Revill, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Stack and Hal Holbrook. However, I really enjoyed James Mason’s energetic portrayal of the doomed General Edward Braddock; Rosemary Murphy’s skillful performance as the future president’s demanding mother, Mary Ball Washington; Richard Kiley’s emotional portrayal of Washington’s neighbor, planter George Mason; and John Glover’s ambiguous performance as the ambitious Revolutionary officer, Charles Lee. I was also impressed by Stephen Macht’s performance as the ambitious and volatile Benedict Arnold. I could also say the same about Megan Gallagher’s portrayal of Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen. Ron Canada provided a good deal of depth in his limited appearances as Washington’s slave valet, Billy Lee. Philip Casnoff, who was a year away from his stint in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, gave a very charming and humorous performance as Washington’s French-born aide and close friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. And Leo Burmester gave an excellent performance as Eban Krutch, the New England born Continental soldier, who served as the viewers’ eyes of both Washington and the war throughout the miniseries’ second half.

I really enjoyed David Dukes’ performance as Washington’s neighbor, mentor and close friend, Will Fairfax. I found it quite energetic and charming. And he managed to develop a first-rate chemistry with Barry Bostwick. Come to think of it, so did Jaclyn Smith, who portrayed Fairfax’s wife and the object of Washington’s desire, Sally Fairfax. I also found Smith’s performance rather complex as she had to convey her character’s feelings for Washington in a subtle manner. At first, I found Patty Duke’s portrayal of the future First Lady, Martha Washington, solid but not particularly interesting. Thankfully, the last quarter of the miniseries allowed Duke to prove what a first-rate actress she could be, as it explored Mrs. Washington’s reaction to the privations suffered by the Continental Army’s rank-and-file. Her performance led to an Emmy nomination. And finally, I come to the man of the hour himself, Barry Bostwick. Despite the miniseries being guilty of whitewashing some of Washington’s character, I cannot deny that Bostwick gave a superb performance. The actor skillfully conveyed Washington’s character from the callow youth who was dominated by his mother and his ambition to the weary, yet iconic military general who carried the rebellion and the birth of a country on his shoulders. It is a pity that he did not receive any award nominations for his performance.

I may have my complaints about “GEORGE WASHINGTON”. Despite its detailed account of the first president’s life, I believe it went out of its way to protect his reputation with occasional whitewashing. And some of the miniseries’ production values – namely the women’s costumes – struck me as a bit underwhelming. But despite its flaws, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” proved to be a first-rate miniseries that delved into the history of the United States during the mid-and-late 18th century, via the life of one man. It also benefited from excellent direction from Buzz Kulik and superb performances led by the talented Barry Bostwick. Not surprisingly, the miniseries managed to earn at least six Emmy nominations.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002) Review

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“ROAD TO PERDITION” (2002) Review

Back in 1998, DC Comics published a graphic novel about a Depression-era criminal enforcer who is betrayed by his employers and forced to hit the roads of the American Midwest with his young son on a quest for revenge. Written by Max Allan Collins, the novel caught the attention of producers Richard and Dean Zanuck and was adapted into film directed by Sam Mendes.

“ROAD TO PERDITION” began during the late winter of 1931, in Rock Island, Illinois. Michael Sullivan serves as an enforcer for Irish mob boss, John Rooney, who seemed to regard him a lot higher than the latter’s unstable son, Connor Rooney. Sullivan is also a happily married man with two sons – Michael Jr. and Peter. However, his relationship with Michael is forced, due to Sullivan’s fear that his older son might turn out to be like him. The Sullivan family attends the wake for one Danny McGovern, a local associate who does bootlegging business with Sullivan family. During the wake, the Rooneys and Sullivan become wary of Finn McGovern, who has expressed suspicions about his younger brother’s death. Connor and Sullivan are ordered by Rooney to talk to Finn.

Connor argues with Finn over the latter’s suspicions about his brother’s death, before killing the latter. Sullivan is forced to gun down McGovern’s men. And this is all witnessed by Michael, who had hidden in his father’s car out of curiosity. Despite Sullivan swearing his son to secrecy and Rooney pressuring Connor to apologize for the reckless action, Connor murders Sullivan’s wife Annie and younger son Peter, mistaking the latter for Michael. He also tries to set up a hit on Sullivan at a speakeasy. But the enforcer manages to kill his would-be murderer first. Sullivan escapes to Chicago with Michael in order to seek employment from Al Capone’s right-hand man Frank Nitti and discover the location of the now hidden Connor. However, Nitti rejects Sullivan’s proposal and informs Rooney of the meeting. The Irish-born mobster reluctantly allows Nitti to recruit assassin Harlen Maguire, who is also a crime scene photographer, to kill Sullivan.

I might as well be frank. The only reason that drew my attention to “ROAD TO PERDITION” was the movie’s Depression-era setting. I have always been fascinated by the 1930s decade, despite Hollywood’s inconsistent portrayal of it in the past 50 to 60 years. The fact that Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law were among the stars in the cast helped maintain my interest until the movie’s release date. However, I still harbor doubts that I would truly enjoy a story about a father and son on the road in early 1930s Midwest or that it would draw any high regard on my part. Thankfully, the movie proved me wrong. Not only did “ROAD TO PERDITION” proved to be both an entertaining character study of various father-and-son relationships, but also a fascinating road trip and crime drama. I once came upon Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel at a bookstore not long after the movie’s initial release. I could not remember exactly what I had read, but I do recall realizing that the movie’s screenwriter, David Self, took a good deal of liberties with Collins’ plot . . . and that he was wise to do so. Enjoyable as the graphic novel was, I could also see that it was not possible to do a complete faithful adaptation of it.

Despite being a combination of a crime drama, a revenge tale and a road trip; the main theme that seemed to permeated “ROAD TO PERDITION” was the relationships between father and son. There is one line in the film uttered by Paul Newman’s John Rooney that pretty much summed up the film:

“Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.”

This certainly seemed to be the case in the relationship between Sullivan and Michael Jr. at the beginning of the film. Sullivan fears that Michael might follow his footsteps into crime, because they share personality traits. Unfortunately, he solves this problem by maintaining an emotional distance from his older son. John Rooney’s relationship with his son Connor is hampered by his lack of respect for the latter, his closer relationship with Sullivan, and Connor’s insecurities. Only Sullivan and Rooney seemed to have a close and easy-going father/son relationship at the beginning of the film, despite a lack of blood connection. And yet, that close relationship ended up being easily shattered thanks to Connor’s act of murder and the determination of both men to protect their own sons. Other gangster films have portrayed the impact of crime on families . . . but not with such complexity.

I believe that “ROAD TO PERDITION” is probably the first motion picture on both sides of the Atlantic that perfectly re-captured the 1930s . . . especially the first half of the decade. One cannot bring up the movie without mentioning the late Conrad Hall, whose brilliant Oscar winning photography re-captured the bleak landscape of Depression-era Midwest. This was especially apparent in the following scenes:

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Richard L. Johnson’s Academy Award nominated art direction and Albert Wolsky’s costume designs also added to the movie’s setting. I especially have to compliment Wolsky for conveying how fashion was in the midst of transforming during that period from the shorter skirts of the 1920s to the longer ones of the 1930s. This was especially reflected in the conservative costumes worn by Jennifer Jason Leigh and other actresses in the movie. Usually I am not in the habit of noticing the sound in any film. But I must admit that I noticed how sound was effectively used in this film, especially in one scene in the second half that featured some brutal murders committed by a Thompson sub-machine gun. Not surprisingly, Scott Millan, Bob Beemer and John Pritchett all received Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing.

There were aspects of “ROAD TO PERDITION” that I found unappealing or puzzling. The movie is more or less a well paced movie. But there is a period in the film – following Sullivan’s failed attempt to acquire employment with the Capone organization – that it nearly dragged to a halt. Director Sam Mendes seemed so enamored of Conrad Hall’s photography of the Illinois landscape during the Sullivans’ journey from Chicago that he seemed to have lost his hold of the pacing. Also, I found myself wondering what happened to Sullivan’s sister-in-law – the one who had offered them refuge at her lakeside home in Perdition. By the time the enforcer and his son arrived, her house had been abandoned. What happened to her and the house? The movie never explained.

The Zanucks, Sam Mendes and the movie’s casting director collected a group of exceptional performers for the cast.“ROAD TO PERDITION” featured solid performances from Ciarán Hinds as the grieving and later murdered Finn McGovern, Liam Aiken as Sullivan’s younger son Peter, and a very entertaining Dylan Baker as the Rooneys’ accountant, Alexander Rance. Both Doug Spinuzza and Kevin Chamberlin were entertaining and memorable as brothel keeper Tony Calvino and his hired bouncer Frank. Stanley Tucci gave a restrained and intelligent performance as Al Capone’s right-hand man, Frank Nitti. Despite portraying the only major female role in the film – namely Annie Sullivan – Jennifer Jason-Leigh let her presence be known as Sullivan’s warm and loving wife, who also happened to know the truth about his real profession.

I realize that many might find this hard to believe, but I first became aware of Daniel Craig, thanks to his very interesting portrayal of Connor Rooney. Someone once complained that Connor never developed as a character. Well, of course not. Any man who would recruit a hophead pimp to kill a very competent hit man like Michael Sullivan Sr. must be a loser. And Craig did a superb job in conveying the character’s insecurities. Jude Law was deliciously creepy as Capone hit man Harlan Maguire, who was not only a very competent killer, but who also seemed to harbor a fetish for photographing dead bodies. Law also had a very good grasp of American dialogue from the 1930s. I was happy to learn that Tyler Hoechlin was still acting. A talent like his should never go to waste. And I must admit that not only he was superb as Michael Sullivan, Jr., he also did a great job in conveying young Michael’s emotional journey throughout the film.

Paul Newman earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the aging Irish gangster, John Rooney. It is a pity that he lost the award, because he was superb as the charming and intelligent Rooney. Newman was also very effective in conveying Rooney’s more intimidating aspects of his character. Although Rooney was not his very last role, it was among his last . . . and probably one of his best. Tom Hanks did not receive any acting nominations for his performance as enforcer Michael Sullivan Sr. Not only am I puzzled, but very disappointed. As far as I am concerned, Sullivan was one of the better roles of his career. He gave a superb performance as the tight-jawed and no-nonsense family man, who also happened to be a first-rate hit man. What I found so amazing about Hanks’ performance is the manner in which he balanced Sullivan’s no-nonsense family man persona and the ruthlessness that made the character such a successful criminal.

If I had to select my favorite Sam Mendes film, it would have to be “ROAD TO PERDITION”. I have never seen“AMERICAN BEAUTY”. And I do not exactly consider his other films better. Yes, the movie has its flaws, including a pacing that nearly dragged to a halt midway. But its virtues – superb direction by Mendes, an excellent cast led by Tom Hanks, and a rich atmosphere that beautifully re-captured the American Midwest during the early years of the Great Depression – made “ROAD TO PERDITION” a personal favorite of mine.