John Adams, HBO Style

June 9, 2008 —My, how times have changed. Just three months ago, HBO Films was gaining accolades for its newly released John Adams, a seven-part miniseries on America’s second president and his history-making role in a world-changing political revolution. Three months later, HBO’s newest entry, Recount–focused on the much smaller, modern melodrama surrounding Florida’s battle over thousands of hanging chads–is gaining more eye rolls than applause.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times. After all, we did just surface from a similar drawn-out battle for presidential power, and we’re not even past the election yet. Appropriately, then, HBO’s weightier, earlier entry, John Adams, is scheduled to make a comeback this week: once screened exclusively on HBO, the series will be released in DVD format tomorrow, much to the delight of history buffs nationwide.

“I have no talent for politics,” John Adams mutters, recalcitrant, early in the film. For the rest of the eight and a half hour extravaganza, he proceeds to prove himself, all too often, correct. Throughout the series, we are introduced to Adams the purist, Adams the stubborn, Adams the hothead, Adams the cold and crotchety, and Adams the bulldozer of a parent: “Get me tea!” “Take off my shoes!” “Go to Russia as an ambassador!” “I renounce you!” Paul Giamatti, the Sideways alum who plays Adams, seems to have perfected a half-grumpy, half-skeptical, squint-eyed scowl, and he proudly displays it throughout most of the series.

The rest of the characters are equally vivid: cousin Sam Adams, the perennial rebel and live wire; Benjamin Franklin, debauched yet canny, full of one-liners; Thomas Jefferson, aloof, idealistic, and yes, a bit pompous; George Washington, stoic, mild and wise. The true star of the show, in many arenas, is Adams’ “dear friend” Abigail (Laura Linney), who sometimes seems to be the brains behind the operation. “You have overburdened your argument with ostentatious erudition,” she tells Adams, playing critic to his summary statement for a legal case. In an era where tabloid insults could apparently take the form of five-syllable SAT challenge words, this was truly saying something. Adams, in fact, often tortures himself by reading the all-too-personal, polysyllabic newspaper attacks aloud.

Above all else, John Adams does a remarkable job of capturing American life more than two hundred years ago–and, as we are often reminded, it wasn’t always pretty. From ridiculous, buggy wigs to bad, rotting teeth to stick-in-the-mouth amputations to smallpox outbreaks to literal tarring and feathering, life was not a piece of cake for Adams and his contemporaries. Even more striking, however, are the subtle reminders of how much was at stake for the early American revolutionaries. After the Continental Congress finally votes for independence, for instance, the room sits in a stunned, “What have we done?” silence. Benjamin Franklin’s famous line, “We must all hang together or we shall surely hang separately,” takes on a deadly serious meaning. The founding fathers, the series reminds us, took great personal risk and principled stands for a cause not guaranteed to succeed.

Life in the revolutionary period wasn’t always exciting, and John Adams hits dull patches as well. Political speechifying can carry on too long; meaningful glances across a table can turn into methodical, all-too-long stares. Given that the timeline jumps along remarkably quickly from episode to episode–the entire Revolutionary War, it seemed, lasted sixteen minutes or so–these pregnant pauses can take their toll on the flow of the production.

And what, ultimately, of Adams? Despite his rough edges, the series, along with David McCullough’s book, labors to give this oft-forgotten founding father his due. Adams is at turns paranoid, but he’s also principled: despite growing pressure for war, Adams labors for a peace with France that, in some senses, costs him his reelection. Adams is not a wholly political animal, indeed; amid a cast of characters jockeying for power, he often strives, above all, to do what he thinks is right. When, after years of lukewarm receptions, he finally gains the passionate approval of an applauding crowd, Adams remains untouched: “A mob is no less a mob,” he tells Abigail, “because they are with you.” When he finally leaves the White House in defeat, boarding a public stagecoach and declaring to his co-passengers that he is “plain John Adams…same as yourselves,” he does so with dignity and restraint. The contrast to today’s elections, or to the kicking-and-screaming fiasco portrayed in Recount, is certainly worth noting.

The focus of John Adams often goes beyond politics and into personal relationships, including the enduring love story of John and Abigail and the somewhat-dysfunctional relationship between John Adams and his children. Adams’ tempestuous association with Thomas Jefferson is one of the more interesting in history, and John Adams spends a fair amount of time highlighting the tensions between the two. Both, in this portrayal, are passionate about their country; Adams, in particular, is passionate about his legacy, writing to Jefferson: “Who will write the history of our revolution? Who can write it?”

As those who study it know, history has a way of getting revised and reshaped, with new twists, emphases and angles emerging as time goes by. “Nothing is so false,” Adams harrumphs near the end of the film, disgusted by an inaccurate Trumbull painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “as modern history.”

Two hundred years later, with media and communications developments far beyond what Adams could possibly conceive, John Adams–despite some glitches–is a modern take that makes an impressive go at bringing history to life. Would Adams approve? If not, it’s a fair bet that Abigail would. She comes out looking pretty darn good.

Real Clear Politics


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