John Adams

John Adams


The Dork Report cel­e­brates Inde­pen­dence Day 2008 in a New York City Star­bucks, tap­ping out a review of the HBO minis­eries John Adams. Believe it or not, the tim­ing is acci­den­tal, but July 4th has proven to be an aus­pi­cious date in Amer­i­can His­to­ry. On-and-off-again friends and foes Thomas Jef­fer­son and John Adams both died on the same date, exact­ly 50 years after the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of what they called The Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­den­cy. The tale sounds too good to be true, and yet it is.

HBO is back on its game at last, after a peri­od of appar­ent dor­man­cy fol­low­ing the nat­ur­al con­clu­sion of flag­ship orig­i­nal pro­grams Sex and the City and The Sopra­nos, the pre­ma­ture can­cel­la­tion of Dead­wood and Rome, and the crim­i­nal abbre­vi­a­tion of the final sea­son of The Best Tele­vi­sion Show Ever Made (some­times referred to as The Wire). Fine­ly pedi­greed, this lav­ish, over sev­en-hour minis­eries by his­to­ry buff Tom Han­ks’ pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Play­tone is based on the biog­ra­phy by David McCul­lough. How­ev­er, it fails to reach the epic pro­fun­di­ty of The Wire and Dead­wood, which in the opin­ion of this Dork Reporter, pos­si­bly have more to say about the true nature of the Amer­i­ca we have actu­al­ly inher­it­ed from Adams and his con­tem­po­raries.

John AdamsAmerica’s sec­ond first cou­ple

This Dork Reporter does not con­sid­er him­self a patri­ot, and is not espe­cial­ly moved by sto­ries of ear­ly Amer­i­can his­to­ry. How­ev­er, the drama­ti­za­tion of these leg­endary events and the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of dusty old Amer­i­can heroes were intrigu­ing enough to make me con­sid­er pick­ing up a copy of McCullough’s tome. The adult life of John Adams encom­passed such ele­men­tary school social stud­ies touch­stones as the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, and the Con­sti­tu­tion. In short, Adams was not only present dur­ing many of the key points in ear­ly Amer­i­can his­to­ry, but a cru­cial par­tic­i­pant. Nev­er­the­less, his­to­ry has cho­sen oth­er heroes. As Adams was a states­man and not a mil­i­tary man, and indeed spent most of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War on a frus­trat­ing mis­sion abroad in Europe, we don’t see reen­act­ments of such key events as the Boston Tea Par­ty, which one might have expect­ed of a lav­ish big-bud­get HBO pro­duc­tion. It makes sense, but there is unin­ten­tion­al com­e­dy when a char­ac­ter remarks “Boy, how ’bout that Boston Tea Par­ty last night, huh?” (OK, I admit I’m para­phras­ing, but the effect is the same.)

After the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War (waged in part by “god­less Hes­s­ian mer­ce­nar­ies,” includ­ing one of my ances­tors, Johannes Schwalm), Adams returned to the States Unit­ed only to be turned right back around for his appoint­ment to the impos­si­ble, thank­less job of ambas­sador to for­mer mor­tal ene­my Great Britain. There’s a bril­liant­ly tense scene in which Adams meets the slight­ly odd but clear­ly seething King George III for the first time. When Adams final­ly came home for good, he suf­fered per­sis­tent crit­i­cism at hav­ing been safe and cod­dled in Europe through­out the tur­moil at home (it also seems his weight was a favorite talk­ing point of the news­pa­pers). But the minis­eries makes clear that the biggest sac­ri­fice made for his duty was the effects of his absence on his fam­i­ly. He los­es a son to alco­holism and a son-in-law to naïve invest­ments, but on the oth­er hand, his son John Quin­cy Adams suc­ceed­ed him as the sixth pres­i­dent.

John AdamsIf I had a dol­lar…

As the sec­ond pres­i­dent of the States Unit­ed, Adams and his veep Jef­fer­son both had the same aims: avoid war between France and Eng­land at all costs. Adams was stuck in the pecu­liar­ly iron­ic posi­tion of hav­ing a truce with Britain and antipa­thy with France, the exact oppo­site of the nation’s sit­u­a­tion dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War. His admin­is­tra­tion grap­pled for the first time with many issues that still res­onate today, includ­ing the con­cepts of free­dom of speech, a delib­er­ate nation­al deficit (as espoused by Alexan­der Hamil­ton), and so-called “ene­my com­bat­ants” (which were, at the time, specif­i­cal­ly under­stood to be French refugees sus­pect­ed of remain­ing loy­al to an ene­my monar­chy). Adams reluc­tant­ly sup­port­ed the Alien and Sedi­tion Acts, not because he believed in them (he didn’t) but that he nobly felt it was his duty to stand behind the wish­es of the people’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Con­gress. Dur­ing his admin­is­tra­tion, he and Abi­gail moved into the par­tial­ly com­plet­ed White House, which is shown to have been built by slaves. This Dork Reporter should per­haps not have been sur­prised by this rev­e­la­tion, and yet he was.

As Dork Report first lady Snark­bait opined, John Adams is a show­case for “Hey It’s That Guy“s, pro­vid­ing sub­stan­tial roles for a parade of famil­iar char­ac­ter actors. In many ways, Thomas Jef­fer­son (Stephen Dil­lane) is the most inter­est­ing, and sur­pris­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. As por­trayed here, he kept his own coun­cil and was some­what shy, far from the loqua­cious and com­mand­ing per­son­al­i­ties of many of his con­tem­po­raries. Adams, how­ev­er, cor­rect­ly per­ceived the qui­et man’s pow­er­ful opin­ions about inde­pen­dence, and draft­ed him to write the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence. Jef­fer­son could also be proud, and his effron­tery is price­less as Ben­jamin Franklin (Tom Wilkin­son) quick­ly pro­duces a red pen to make amend­ments. Franklin was one of a kind, and indis­putably bril­liant, but a mas­sive ego­tist and hedo­nist. He was tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect about how to effec­tive­ly oper­ate as ambas­sador to France, but it didn’t stop him from self­ish­ly enjoy­ing his job. He game­ly played the role of “rus­tic” in coon­skin cap, took mis­tress­es (although Wikipedia does point out he was a wid­ow­er at the time), lived a life of leisure, and knew when not to dis­cuss pol­i­tics (which was: most of the time). Orig­i­nal­ly a friend and ally to Adams, Franklin became an antag­o­nist in France, and Adams appears nev­er to have for­giv­en him.

John AdamsAmerica’s First Ras­cal shows John around his crib

George Wash­ing­ton (David Morse) is por­trayed as gruff and humbly diplo­mat­ic, but also quite intel­li­gent and per­cep­tive, not to men­tion phys­i­cal­ly impos­ing. He was such a pop­u­lar hero after the Rev­o­lu­tion that his inau­gu­ra­tion was a for­gone con­clu­sion, but it was lat­er alleged John Adams would have actu­al­ly won the elec­toral col­lege vote with­out a con­spir­a­cy to anoint Wash­ing­ton as America’s first hero. John’s cousin Samuel Adams (Dan­ny Hus­ton) fig­ures sig­nif­i­cant­ly in the Ear­ly Con­ti­nen­tal Con­gress, and now we can final­ly see what Sam did to deserve hav­ing such a damn fine bev­er­age named after him (I kid; actu­al­ly he real­ly was a brew­er on top of all his oth­er achieve­ments). One inter­est­ing fig­ure this Dork Reporter had nev­er heard of was John Dick­in­son (Zelijko Ivanek). As the rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Penn­syl­va­nia, Dick­in­son argued pas­sion­ate­ly against split­ting from Britain, and cor­rect­ly fore­saw the Civ­il War as an inevitable result. And final­ly, there’s a plum role for Lau­ra LIn­ney as Abi­gail Adams, about as strong a woman as she could have been at the time. At one point, we see her scrub­bing the floor with no motion to help from her hus­band. But clear­ly it was not just lip ser­vice when John Adams late in life claims Abi­gail was his most trust­ed advi­sor.

John AdamsI apol­o­gize for fail­ing to men­tion Dork Report favorite Sarah Pol­ley in this arti­cle

In a great scene near the end, an aged Adams dress­es down John Trum­bull, the painter of “The Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence” (now resid­ing in the Capi­tol build­ing — which was also, inci­den­tal­ly, built by slaves), for his­tor­i­cal inac­cu­ra­cies. Iron­i­cal­ly, the scene is an inven­tion, accord­ing to Wikipedia, but it seems to have been con­sis­tent with Adams’ beliefs and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. In his retire­ment, he was con­cerned that the sto­ry of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and his own rep­u­ta­tion would (or even could) be report­ed accu­rate­ly. He pre­dict­ed a roman­ti­cized ver­sion in which future Amer­i­cans would believe “Franklin smote the earth with his elec­tri­cal rod and out came Wash­ing­ton and Jef­fer­son.” It seems he may have been cor­rect; Franklin and Jef­fer­son are heroes to this day, while he remains rel­a­tive­ly obscure. It is true that there isn’t much scan­dal or leg­end about his char­ac­ter and per­son­al­i­ty for school­child­ren to latch on to. Jef­fer­son had Mon­ti­cel­lo and his inven­tions, and Franklin had his apho­risms and, well, inven­tions of his own. One oth­er rea­son Adams is not exact­ly a pop­u­lar hero is that he first made him­self known for defend­ing Eng­lish sol­diers accused of per­pet­u­at­ing an unpro­voked mas­sacre. The defense attor­ney was nev­er a much-loved pro­fes­sion, but set an ear­ly prece­dent for lawyers becom­ing pres­i­dents.

Final­ly, two small­er obser­va­tions: The minis­eries was par­tial­ly filmed in Colo­nial Williams­burg, but many oth­er loca­tions were real­ized with superla­tive spe­cial effects. Beyond the obvi­ous recre­ations of old Boston and Philadel­phia, the DVD bonus fea­tures reveal that cer­tain shots I nev­er ques­tioned, such as Adams ascend­ing the stair­case to a impres­sive Euro­pean man­sion, were in fact part CG. Also of inter­est are the exam­ples of the med­i­cine of the day: exsan­guina­tion, inoc­u­la­tion, and mas­tec­to­my, all with­out anes­the­sia.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.