Picks and Pans Review: Christopher Columbus
CBS (Sunday, May 19, 8 p.m. ET)
Sometimes, watching historical miniseries on TV is enough to make you want to leave your life's story in a time capsule for TV producers 400 years hence. If they make a mini about you and you're that long dead, they won't show you picking your teeth in public. Wouldn't be respectful. No, they'll find some way to saint you. Christopher Columbus goes just about as far as any network minibio has yet to make its subject real and human; it almost succeeds. Ask yourself what you know about ol' Chris and, if you're like most, you'll come up with little more than that he "sailed the ocean blue" and "discovered America." In fact, he discovered the Caribbean and believed that what lay behind it was Asia. The mini teaches you that and more. It gives you a Columbus who, with not a great deal of soul searching, sold island natives into slavery, would have sailed west for the glory of Portugal or France, if they'd given him the ships, and had one wife who died and a lover he never married. The mini shows you those sides of Columbus but never quite lets him wallow in a few ordinary human frailties. It pumps blood into his veins, but the blood's not hot. Irishman Gabriel Byrne, a hunk soon to be discovered by America, does a stellar job with the role, taking it as far as the script can go. Faye Dunaway as Queen Isabella is a sight to behold wearing armor. Max Von Sydow and Nicol Williamson as the monarchs of Portugal and Spain have little more than cameos. The bad guys are mostly laughable: Oliver Reed as a competing captain tries hard but he has to give a few too many greedy glares, and Murray Melvin as a churchman who calls Columbus a heretic belongs on a Saturday morning cartoon. Columbus is educational but rarely boring. It's good and stirring, beautifully produced and well worth your time. But it is afraid to go that extra knot to give you a man who can pick his teeth but still has the courage to sail into the unknown. (Part Two airs Monday.)
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