Sunday, January 20, 2019

"John Adams" (2008): an impressionistic review

"John Adams," a seven-episode, 2008 miniseries from HBO about the adult life of John Adams, second president of the United States, covers the man's life from 1770 to Adams's death on July 4, 1826, the very same day that Thomas Jefferson died. The series stars Paul Giamatti as John Adams, Laura Linney as wife and advisor Abigail Adams, and Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon on "Game of Thrones") as Thomas Jefferson, the ultimate frenemy. A good portion of the series is devoted to exploring the political and philosophical differences between Adams and Jefferson, despite both men's agreement on the need for revolutionary independence from England. In seven episodes, we move from just before the American Revolution to the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence to the first fifty years of the United States' existence. There is some focus on the "Quasi-war" with France, but little to none on the War of 1812. Adams and Jefferson apparently had a falling-out that lasted for years, but over the final fourteen years of their lives, the two men struck up a correspondence in which they each explained themselves to the other and forged, thereby, a kind of reconciliation. Jefferson died a few hours earlier than Adams on July 4, 1826; as Adams neared death, one of his final utterances was, "Thomas Jefferson survives," a moment the TV series faithfully recreates.

This isn't to say the series was faithful in all aspects. Wikipedia actually has a long list of the various historical gaffes and liberties made and taken by the filmmakers. Some were minor in nature and scope, such as the date of Nabby Adam's mastectomy. Others were more significant, such as the idea, promoted by the series, that Samuel Adams (Danny Huston, playing John Adams's cousin whose name lives on thanks to a beer) had a vicious streak and was in favor of mob violence: one episode shows John and Samuel reacting very differently as a Boston crowd tars and feathers a British official. Despite the inaccuracies, I appreciated how the series brought the era to life, being so accurate as to mark the progress of time and aging by making everyone's teeth increasingly decayed and discolored.

The series deals with the small as much as it deals with the large: we are given a sense of life in the Adams household: how John and Abigail treat their children, and how this care, or lack of it, affects the kids as they grow into adults. Charles Adams (Kevin Trainor), the show submits, suffers from his father's absence and from a combination of scorn and indifference whenever the elder Adams is there, all of which drives Charles, who is naturally rebellious, to drink heavily. He dies in ignominy at the tender age of thirty, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver, leaving behind a wife and children. Nabby Adams, the eldest daughter of John and Abigail, eventually dies of breast cancer; the show gives us a painful-to-watch mastectomy scene (no gore is actually shown; it's all implied) that both presents the barbarism of late-1700s medicine and gives the viewer hope that Nabby will live a somewhat normal life after the operation. Nabby's cancer recurs, though, having metastasized to her other breast and to her spine. The Adamses have other children, but the series doesn't focus on them.

Along the way, as America goes through its painful birth pangs, we meet historical figures like Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson, speaking French, during the Europe scenes, with a charming smirk and a decidedly American accent), King George III (a brief but brilliant cameo by Tom Hollander, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors; you may remember him from "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation"), and George Washington (David Morse, with a fairly nicely done prosthetic nose to give him the famous Washingtonian profile). Franklin is portrayed as an old rogue who thoroughly enjoys living in France as an ambassador. He and John Adams clash primarily because of Adams's insistence on being blunt and straightforward. When Adams finally meets King George III after America has gained its independence, the meeting is portrayed as brief but extremely carefully worded, with the king—who was in the grip of mental illness—staring off into the middle distance so as to avoid eye contact with another human being. George Washington is a (literally) towering figure in the series who nevertheless appears only peripherally: this is a series about John Adams, after all, so this is to be expected. That said, Washington commands everyone's attention the moment he's in the room, and he manages this despite being depicted as extremely soft-spoken. (The first president's inauguration is humorously portrayed as inaudible before a crowd of thousands: the gentleman administering the oath of office is far louder; Washington's repetitions of the oath sound like Christian Bale's Batman muttering to himself.)

But the center of this political whirlwind is commanded by Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as the faithful, long-suffering, and savvy Abigail Adams. When I did a quick bit of research after watching the series, I learned that John Adams was an inveterate letter-writer, and it's often through these correspondences that historians have been able to learn as much as they have about the man's character, and that of his wife. Linney's portrayal of Abigail Adams hits all the right notes. She's a wise family woman who can rightly be called one of America's earliest feminists, but she conforms to the social roles forced upon her by late 18th-century and early 19th-century society. Bearing the burdens of both motherhood and the maintenance of the Adamses' property, Abigail often pines for her husband's return from wherever he is stationed, be it Philadelphia or France. Linney carries these worries quite effectively upon her brow; we can see plainly the love, care, and concern she has for her husband and her children. Abigail ends up living a long life, and she dies in bed. She is party to the friendship/rivalry between her husband and Thomas Jefferson; initially charmed by Jefferson's manner and intellect, she grows cool to him later on as Jefferson seems to evolve into a more extreme and revolutionary figure who also—and this is problematic for Abigail—owns slaves. John Adams, it should be known, owned no slaves. Of the first twelve US presidents, only two were not slave-owners, and both men were Adamses. Paul Giamatti, for his part, offers a solid and earnestly done rendition of the second president. Not exactly known for his looks, Giamatti nevertheless projects a certain hard-edged charisma, delivering his lines with passion and wit, making it easy for us, the viewers, to see John Adams as a persuader almost in spite of himself.

If I understand this correctly, the series depicts the differences between Adams and Jefferson this way: Adams was more of an authoritarian who, while paying lip service to the notion of federalism, stressed the importance of a strong federal government and the need for the people to be governed. This authoritarian streak was most visible in Adams's signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which criminalized false and/or seditious speech against the government, and also allowed for the imprisonment and deportation of non-Americans deemed dangerous or potentially hostile. Jefferson—somewhat ironically for a slave-owner—stressed the importance of individual freedom, and he was wary of government's tendency to oppress. The series shows how this ideological conflict spilled over into and affected the men's friendship, and much of the final episode is devoted to a voiceover rendition of the fourteen-year-long correspondence that enabled the men to reconcile.

Overall, "John Adams" proved to be both watchable and educational, well acted and competently filmed despite quite a few shaky-cam moments that lent the proceedings a somewhat anachronistic vibe. Many of the shots of colonial America—showing hillscapes, distant forests, and architecture that I instantly recognized—made me pine for home. While the show had its flaws, I see it as a fair-minded biopic that I would gladly recommend to anyone looking to learn a bit more about the life of my country's second president, a man who had large shoes to fill after George Washington vacated the office. One thing I found curious, though, was how each episode would open with a succession of revolutionary flags with slogans like "Join or Die," "Don't Tread On Me," and "Unite or Die"—all depicting serpents. It's a wonder that the eagle ended up as our national symbol. Benjamin Franklin famously proposed that the turkey be our national bird. It's interesting to speculate on how close we were to becoming members of House Slytherin.

1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

Great review of a vastly underrated HBO gem. As much as I enjoyed this excellent miniseries, I do wish John Quincy Adams would have been delved into a bit more and maybe received his own mini or documentary as his life was even more intriguing than his father's. How many U.S. students even know that this ex-President collapsed as a then elderly Congressman during a heated debate on the House floor suffering a cerebral hemorrhage and then dying two days later in the Speaker's Room of the Capitol Building, or that he was interred three times?

Anyway, I can't wait to finally see HBO's "Deadwood" film this spring. HBO is rectifying a wrong (canceled after three seasons) and giving the David Milch creation a fitting film ending this Spring which he co-wrote with Nic Pizzolatto. It's just a shame that Powers Boothe and Titus Welliver won't be in the film. If you haven't seen the television series, you might want to check it out.