George Washington

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

14 December

George Washington dies, 1799

On this day in 1799, George Washington died. George Washington was the first president of the USA, a commander in chief of the army in the war of independence and was also one of the Founding Fathers, the group who signed the Declaration of Independence, launched the new country into a revolutionary war, and then drafted the Constitution. His presidency was marked by attempts to promote the federal government and national institutions, to get taxation on a fair basis, to avoid wars in foreign lands, to pay down the national debt and to use the power of the state to protect and enlarge civil liberty – though he also used the state’s military might to close down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Washington was keenly aware that, as first president, what he did would set a precedent. It was Washington who suggest the simple title “Mr President”. It was Washington who chose where the new country’s new capital should be built, and who dictated what sort of pomp and ceremony the new country should use (very little, he deemed). Washington did not belong to any formal political party and did not believe there was a place for them inside government. He had become president in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, and when he left office in 1797 he retired to quiet domesticity, only to be called back to military service the following year, as the US geared up for possible war against France. He died having caught a chill while out inspecting his plantation in wintry weather, his situation being made much worse by the letting of nearly half of his blood by doctors. In his last will he freed all his slaves.

George Washington (2000, dir: David Gordon Green)

David Gordon Green went on to direct not particularly successful studio fodder such as the Your Highness, the hybrid of the epic and comic that was epic only in terms of its failure, comic only in its expectations of success. And it had started so well with George Washington, a tiny drama that finds beauty in the everyday – railroad tracks, busted municipal buildings, old clapboard houses. It stars a cast of unknowns as the rural, feral kids of North Carolina who are wise beyond their years, boys and girls making out they’re men and women who are hanging out, killing time a day at a time in the last summer before they hit puberty. Into this effectively drawn cast of characters – some white, most black, all poor – Green tosses the grenade of a death, which happens so casually it’s almost as if it didn’t, and then stands back to watch how this event affects them all. I say stands back, but Green and his cinematographer Tim Orr have clearly worked like dogs to get the look of this film right – most of the 25-year-old director’s budget went on lenses, apparently – and to squeeze the most naturalistic performances possible out of his gifted cast of modern-day Tom Sawyers and Huckleberry Finns. Scott Tobias at the AV Club – now at The Dissolve – suggests George Washington has the naturalism of Harmony Korine with the visual flair of Terrence Malick. And that’s about bang on, though Malick never worked with a budget this tiny, I bet. And could Korine better the relaxed nature of the performances? What the film has to say about the hopes of a nation founded by a namesake of one of the characters, in the context of all this wasted human potential, that’s just left hanging in the breeze.

Why Watch?

  • The performances
  • The debut by a gifted film-maker
  • Tim Orr’s cinematography
  • The antidote to the sort of kids who’ve been through the Mickey Mouse Club

George Washington – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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