Review: ‘The American Experience George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King’

Narrator: William Martin.

Narrator: William Martin.

Two centuries of Washington-encased-in-marble is hard to crack in a single hour of television, but “The American Experience” takes a brave and forceful whack. What emerges is a fascinating and fluid portrait of a complicated man.

We Americans take our patrimony seriously–much too seriously–preferring myth over flesh in our reverence for the Founding Fathers.

Which is too bad; it’s the cracks in the myths, not the myths themselves, that help us understand just how remarkable these men were, and why their achievement in forging a nation is as alive today as it was back when Patrick Henry was still dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s on important pieces of parchment.

Washington is by far the prime victim of a nation’s idolatry; the man has simply been lost in the shadow of the legion of monuments that bear his name and preserve his memory.

But who was the man who chopped down cherry trees, chewed with wooden teeth and tossed silver dollars with the strength of an all-star rightfielder?

He was a man of complex contradictions and very human yearnings.

Despite so much outward success, his life seems to have been built on a series of rejections and frustrations, both personal and professional.

He courted fame and power, possessed a voracious appetite for land, married for money and social rank, drank and gambled heavily, and wasn’t above stepping on the next guy if it would help his own advancement.

A master manipulator, he was a more skillful tactician in creating an image for himself than in creating battlefield strategy; his own general staff thought him something of a fool (and his military record indeed bears them out.)

Ultimately, though, Washington was a man capable of change. A skillful politician and a passionate leader, he was a man able to accept massive responsibility and grow into a role that required a powerful sacrifice and a dramatic destiny larger than the one he had carefully charted for himself.

And, in the end, in ways he never expected, he found within himself the man of honor and substance he had always hoped to be.

Producer-director David Sutherland and writer William Martin have constructed a mesmerizing psychological study of Washington from his youth through a disastrous early military career to the end of the American Revolution and the moment he seized his place in history by eschewing power and rejecting complete control over a nation desperate to give birth to itself.

Washington could have become a king. He chose to remain a man. For more than 200 years, the nation has been building monuments to that choice. Sutherland and Martin shows us why he deserves them.

The American Experience George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn't Be King

(Wed. (18), 9-10 p.m., PBS)


A David Sutherland production for The American Experience. Producer-director, Sutherland; co-producer, Nancy Sutherland; associate producer, Joshua Seftel; writer, William Martin.


Camera, A.J. Dimaculangan; music, Sheldon Mirowitz.


Host: David McCullough.
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