It’s likely that the unexpected success last fall of Ken Burns’ 12-hour The Civil War helped give PBS the confidence to make a commitment to a seven-part, seven-hour documentary. But having slogged through the first two hours of Columbus and the Age of Discovery, I’m not convinced that this was the one to take a chance on. No matter how complex or intriguing a man Columbus may have been, our interest in his life centers on only one thing — his voyage to what would become America. So the endless minutes spent pondering the mariner’s childhood and the world in which he lived are at first interesting but soon maddening — let’s get on with it, I kept thinking.
Discovery is beautifully shot, combining contemporary footage of Columbus’ route with an array of 15th-and 16th-century maps and paintings. The commentary, by historian and Columbus scholar Mauricio Obregón, is brisk and to the point. With his gleaming pate, snow-white beard, and muscular burliness, Obregón is yet another potential PBS pinup boy: Joseph Campbell as Mr. Clean. But Obregón isn’t around enough, the pace of these hours is deadly, and if the filmmakers, led by executive producer Zvi Dor-Ner, can’t convince me after two hours that this philistine needs to know more about Columbus than I remember from high school — well, I just don’t think their film is going to hypnotize viewers the way The Civil War did. Parts 1 and 2: C