For some time now an unfilmed script about George Washington has been floating around online. It’s credited to David Franzoni, presumably the same person by that name who wrote Gladiator and Amistad. You can read it for yourself here. I just ran across it again while doing some online browsing. As much as I’d love to see the Revolutionary War play out on the big screen, I’m not sure a Washington biopic is a workable proposition.
It’s not that I have a problem with Washington himself. Far from it. It’s pretty hard to study him and come away with anything other than the conviction that he was a genuinely great man, largely because of his persistent efforts to live up to his own demanding standards. But he was also notoriously aloof and stern, keeping himself remote from others and from his own emotions. This reservation would make it difficult for an audience to sustain their identification with him for two to three hours.
There are a lot of episodes from Washington’s life that I’d like to see on film; David Hackett Fischer’s recent book on the fall of New York, the retreat across New Jersey, and the battles for Trenton and Princeton would make a great starting point for a script. But I think Washington’s own austerity makes it necessary to tell these stories from additional viewpoints, approaching the man himself from the outside, with his emotions only rarely breaking out of that formidable exterior. This is the way Washington’s contemporaries experienced him. Washington’s usual, deliberate composure was what made his outburst of rage at Kip’s Bay seem so explosive, and his rare show of weakness at Newburgh so moving. Any onscreen Washington should also keep his emotional armor fastened tightly, so that the rare opening in that armor would be similarly affecting. (My main problem with Franzoni’s script is that it conveys a familiarity between Washington and some of his contemporaries that strikes me as inappropriate.)
Like many public figures, Washington consciously crafted his persona. Uniquely, though, he played his role with sincere determination when no one was looking. Few of today’s actors could do him justice, and that’s a shame. Among modern Americans, Washington’s effort to become an embodiment of virtue is a lost art.
(I obtained the Washington portrait from Wikimedia Commons.)