George Washington frames a very human coming-of-age story within an ethereal vision of America borne of its own myths. An impoverished pocket of North Carolina is the home to a multi-ethnic cast of characters, but David Gordon Green, in his first and best film, wisely depoliticizes this milieu to create an environment built like an interwoven tapestry; everyone in the film is capable of actions that cause ripple effects through a community and forge personal relationships, regardless of age or race. After his dip into the mainstream, where companionship was predicated on increasingly hollow and repetitive banter, it’s easy to forget how elegant Green conveys a sense of camaraderie between the characters in George Washington, where simple gestures and non-sequitur reflections express an acute understanding of shared experience and sentiments.
Even though the film encompasses many lives to appear universal, it’s predominantly focused through the eyes of a handful of children. Following the humorous and innocent opening scene, a large warehouse door slides open to reveal an idealistic, sun-dappled landscape that seems out of place amid the abandoned buildings and poverty that dominates the locale; the prologue signals a foray into childhood wonder that’s beautifully captured by Tim Orr’s impressive CinemaScope cinematography. While the destitute scenery admittedly makes for some stunning visual tableaus, Green is ever-conscious of real-world concerns and is careful not to present his setting as just a mere playground: Before the film’s central tragedy robs the children of their innocence, their scenes of play are contrasted by a seemingly offhand scene showing a dejected Damascus (Eddie Rouse) quitting yet another dead-end job. The characters’ community acts as both a place of endless discovery as well as an oppressive burden.
The children in the film are at the age where reality begins to impede on their conceptual notions on life; they certainly know what death is, but the ramifications and consequences that come with it are not completely understood. This idea dictates the children’s behavior after their involvement with a fatal accident, and causes the group to silently split apart and separately cope with the aftermath of what is most likely their first direct exposure to death. Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) suffers from immense guilt, in part perhaps since his role as an ostensible protector has been compromised, while George (Donald Holden) becomes almost empowered by the accident, overcoming his own personal feelings and his medically underdeveloped skull to make himself to be a hero of sorts.
It’s George’s arc that elevates George Washington’s realism into mythic terrain: In Green’s world, places and events seem rooted in legend, and George himself sets out to become one himself by committing heroic acts big and (mostly) small, with the latter still “[seeming] bigger to other people,” as George’s crush, Nasia (Candace Evanofski), muses. It’s fitting that an outside source like Nasia narrates the film, as her idea of George and her conviction in believing that he’ll live forever puts the would-be hero in the same vein as the titular founding father. George Washington’s story seems like a fable with the amount of tall tales passed along with his actual accomplishments, and Green suggests with a final montage that, in the eyes of a child, the concept of the hero endures more than the hero itself.
Criterion’s 1080p upgrade of David Gordon Green’s masterpiece is breathtaking, rendering Tim Orr’s photography with exceptional clarity and brightness. The lush colors of the film’s settings are delicately balanced, as is the interplay between light and shadows. The DTS-HD surround sound audio is just as impressive and immersive, excluding the very few moments where dialogue seems to be overtaken by the various other sonic textures that fill the soundtrack.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray package adds no new extras to the previously released DVD, but what’s here is still nonetheless fascinating. Two student films provide insight into the beginnings of Green’s aesthetic, which inform much of George Washington’s general look and feel, as does Clu Gulagher’s 1969 short A Day with the Boys. Green’s 2001 interview with Charlie Rose covers most of what’s in the feature audio commentary, which is rightly dominated by Green and his anecdotes on the making of the film and working with the child actors. Actor Paul Schneider, it seems, is mostly there for levity’s sake. A 2001 reunion with the cast is very meditative as the child actors evaluate their lives in the year since the film had been released. Also included in the package is a splendid essay by Armond White and a statement by Green.
George Washington gets a worthy and breathtaking 1080p upgrade thanks to Criterion, in which the new picture quality makes David Gordon Green’s first and best film look as if it came directly from myth.