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'Decoding Watson' review: Fair, but ultimately damning look at controversial LI geneticist

James Watson with a molecular model of DNA

James Watson with a molecular model of DNA in Cambridge, Mass., in 1957. Photo Credit: ABC Photo Archives / Disney ABC / Andreas Feininger

THE DOCUMENTARY  "American Masters: Decoding Watson"

WHEN | WHERE   Wednesday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13 and Thursday at 8 p.m. on WLIW/21.  Friday at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on WLIW World

WHAT IT'S ABOUT James Watson — former director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Laurel Hollow — codiscovered the double helix structure of the DNA molecule with Francis Crick (who died in 2004), based in part on research by Rosalind Franklin, an X-ray crystallographer who died in 1958 (Crick and Watson would later be awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery). This "American Masters" portrait by Mark Mannucci has already been accorded rare media attention, notably a Jan. 1 story in The New York Times, which picked up on Watson's comments here about race and intelligence. Watson first told a British journalist in 2007 that blacks have lower intelligence than whites on average because of genetic differences. He restates that position in interviews conducted last year for "Decoding Watson." Watson, 90, is recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident on Bungtown Road near the lab in October.

MY SAY The question, or elephant in the room, arrives late in "Becoming Watson," when a voice off-screen asks, "have your views on the relationship between race and intelligence changed?"

 Cue to Watson, who pounces immediately: "No, not at all. I would like for them to change since there'd be new knowledge which says that your nurture is much more important than your nature, but I haven't seen any knowledge. There's a difference on the average between blacks and whites on IQ tests and the difference is ..."

 At this point, the grand old man of the double helix appears to lose track of what he's about to say — either that or weighs the irreparable damage he's about to inflict on his legacy — then blurts out, "it's genetics."

 If this all sounds like the mad, muddled maunderings of senescence, then it's important to know who the maunderer is here. "Decoding Watson" explains: Watson is one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, but his racist views have since threatened to overshadow his singular accomplishments and may have now, ineradicably, superseded them. This program didn't set out to deracinate Watson -- no "American Masters" ever does of its subject. Instead, Watson manages to do all the work himself:

"Given my desire to never stay away from messy problems," he says, "I was bound to [hurt] myself sometimes, and that's what I did."

And does. And how.

 What's so tragic and melancholic about this portrait are both the man and accomplishment. Along with Crick, and a vitally important assist from Franklin — who gets her due here, if not quite the posthumous Nobel she almost certainly deserves — Watson discovered one of the most elegantly perfect structures in the known universe. He rebuilt Cold Spring Harbor Lab into a world-class research facility. He supported scientists and science — real science — for decades. Then the foot went in the mouth, and there it has remained.

Lest any viewer be left with an impression that there's a valid debate within the scientific community about race-based genetics as it relates to intelligence, "Decoding Watson" quickly settles the matter: No, there isn't, not remotely, or as Joseph Graves Jr., an evolutionary biologist and critic of Watson's race-based views, puts it, "there is absolutely no evidence that favors intelligence in any subpopulation of human beings, none whatsoever."

 There are plenty of Watson admirers in this portrait, but you can easily read the pain and confusion in their faces as they try to reconcile the man — or at least his repugnant views — with his accomplishments. Graves gets the takeaway line, if not quite the epitaph: "Racism suspends all rational judgment [and] takes people who are otherwise brilliant people and gets them down roads that are intellectually unsupportable."

BOTTOM LINE Comprehensive, fair and ultimately damning portrait.

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