This blog 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 blogger, possibly have more to say about the true nature of the America we have actually inherited from Adams and his contemporaries.
This blogger does not consider himself a patriot in the flag-waving sense of the word, 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 naive investments, but on the other hand, his son John Quincy Adams succeeded him as the sixth president.
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 blogger should perhaps not have been surprised by this revelation, and yet he was.
The cast is a veritable showcase for “Hey It’s That Guy”s, providing substantial roles for a parade of familiar character actors — not least headliner Paul Giamatti. 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.
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 beverage named after him (I kid; actually he really was a brewer on top of all his other achievements). One interesting figure this blogger 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.
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, incidentally, also 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.