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'Washington' review: Levelheaded, clearly told miniseries

Nicholas Rowe stars as George Washington in History's

Nicholas Rowe stars as George Washington in History's three-night miniseries  "Washington."    Credit: HISTORY/Horia Manolache

MINISERIES "Washington"

WHEN|WHERE Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on History

WHAT IT'S ABOUT For her first TV production, renowned presidential historian — and Rockville Centre-raised — Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is executive producer on this, has assembled several top historians (Joseph J. Ellis, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jon Meacham, Alan Taylor, to name a few) and political figures (Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell) to provide on-screen commentary about George Washington's life and times. This three-night, six-hour production stars Scottish actor Nicholas Rowe ("Young Sherlock Holmes") as Washington. 

     Sunday covers the formative years, beginning in 1754 when the young officer is sent to battle the French in the Pennsylvania wilderness, ultimately emerging a hero who's poised for superstardom. (This review is based on Sunday's episode.) 

MY SAY Mount Vernon's website has a generous sampling of Washington portraiture through the years, from his swashbuckling youth (Charles Willson Peale) to austere late middle-age (Gilbert Stuart). All these images have endured through time and space, on stamps and coins, and more. We may not know him, but we know what he looked like. The image is unshakable.

Which brings us to "Washington." Rowe may be a fine veteran actor, but as Washington? Sherlock Holmes (who he's played a few times)? Sure, no sweat. His Cardinal Orsini, patron to Galileo, from the excellent "DaVinci's Demons?" Absolutely. But George?

 Hence the peril of the dramatization — an otherwise intelligent, handsome, and reasonably well-directed one. Rowe simply does not look like Washingtone, and for a miniseries that seeks to render him in fully human form, that is a drawback. A fatal one? Hardly, but a distracting one. (Says executive producer Matt Ginsberg: "While Rowe shares the same height as Washington, and we believe some similar facial features, it was his ability to capture and convey the essence of Washington’s character that made him perfect for the role.")

Meanwhile, Kearns Goodwin is missing entirely. The network says she was deeply involved in the production process — notably in securing many of the other A-list historians who appear here — but does not provide on-screen commentary. That's regrettable too, because she is someone who knows from decades of experience how to work the camera.

Yet get past this and her "Washington '' works well, as levelheaded, cleanly-told history, absent hagiography or unnecessary clutter. Washington, if not quite Rowe's Washington, also comes into focus, as someone who was (initially) vain, preening and ambitious but who learned from his mistakes. He suffered disappointments, overcame them, then positioned himself for opportunity, and finally history. He owned slaves and sold them, but "Washington" doesn't censure but instead seeks context and understanding.

On his upcoming birthday — the 288th — he could do a whole lot worse. 

BOTTOM LINE Good dramatizations, insightful commentary, even if "Washington's" George looks nothing like George.

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