Thursday, July 16, 2009

John Adams

Near the end of Kirk Ellis' gloriously researched miniseries concerning our second president, John Adams, now retired and visiting the White House to see his son John Quincy assume the presidency, is shown John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence and immediately launches into a rant. The entire Continental Congress was never present at any one time, he rages. A taken-aback Trumbull stammers, "Y-you would not deny the artist a certain... license?" Adams retorts that the Europeans say that nothing is as false as modern history, then bitterly adds, "I consider the true history of the American Revolution as lost forever."

That is what Ellis' script, based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, seeks to rectify. Though it naturally takes artistic license of its own, even within the scene just described -- the only comment he was recorded making was an offhand, nostalgic remembrance of nominating Washington to lead the Continental Army -- it offers a side of the Revolution rarely seen and, in the process, sheds light on a tragically forgotten Founding Father.

And how anyone could overlook such a fascinating life for so long is baffling. Ellis wisely begins this biopic not with Adams' childhood but on the brink of the Revolution. Adams (Paul Giamatti), a respected but otherwise inconspicuous lawyer, suddenly finds himself thrust into the spotlight when he reluctantly agrees to represent the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre when no one else will plea their case. When his wife, Abigail (Laura Linney), protests, he stands by his principles that everyone deserves a fair trail. As the courtroom rages with incensed colonials, Adams attacks their passion with reason and forces them (chiefly the jury) to recognize that the colonials were as much to blame for the confusion and terror as the soldiers. He manages to get the men off and returns home, where he and his wife celebrate what they assume will be his final case before the public shuns him forever.

His surprise matched my own when Thomas Jefferson then comes to town and offers him a position in the First Continental Congress. Jefferson, a life-long friend of the family, understands that Adams' principles and conviction are needed to inspire the bickering, selfish representatives. Jefferson had no idea what he was getting himself into. The miniseries kicks into high gear over the next three episodes, with Adams displaying all of his passion as well as his stubbornness and a frankness totally unsuited for the political world. He irritates the Congress so much that they ship him abroad to negotiate with France, which only makes matters as now he not only seems insolent and uncultivated but cannot even properly communicate with in their native tongues.

Throughout all of it, each set is so meticulously constructed and its characters so real that you forget you're watching a costume piece. The boisterous Congressional meetings reflect the representatives' constant fear that the British will blast down their door and kill them all at any minute, while Adams' ride across the Atlantic is fraught with peril from the British blockade. The French scenes in particular are superb, as the puritanical, faithful Adams steps off the boat into the death throes of European decadence. These diseased, flighty aristocrats blanket their faces in powder and every line they utter has a lascivious edge to it. They regard Adams and fellow ambassador Ben Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) as wondrous curiosities, so lost in their syphilitic spiral that they utterly fail to recognize just what ideals Adams and Franklin bring with them.

Wilkinson is the first of many casting coups that make John Adams such a rich experience. He revels in the depravity, and he's remarkably spry from a septuagenarian; when he gets Congress to axe Adams as French ambassador, you get the distinct impression that it's less to do with Adams' lack of diplomatic polish and more simply because this uptight firebrand is harshing his cool. Danny Huston appears in the first few chapters as Sam Adams, who makes his passionate cousin look meek in comparison. Stephen Dillane's Jefferson is wracked with grief but always showing resolve; the series never dips into his seedier side save for a shot of the slave Sally weeping on his deathbed, but we can understand what drove him to an affair when you see how his wife's death affected him.

But it's David Morse who steals the entire series as George Washington. Appearing only fleetingly throughout the first five episodes, he conveys Washington's quiet authority immediately with a rigid military posture and a deep voice that never rises above a stern whisper, forcing others to calm down and pay attention to hear him. If Hollywood ever does yet another project concerning Washington, I hope Morse is the first person they call.

For their part, Giamatti and Linney offer up powerhouse performances. Abigail Adams is every bit as interesting as her husband -- never formally educated, she could nevertheless hold reasonable discourse with the finest minds of the day, and Adams valued her counsel above all else -- and by all accounts the two were not simply man and wife but best friends. McCullough culled much of his research from the treasure trove of correspondence between the two, and John almost always addresses her as his friend rather than wife. Giamatti balances John's mocked and maligned public persona with this gentle personal side beautifully, and you will believe that Linney can do anything a man can do in a world that was still completely opposed to gender equality.

After Adams attains the presidency, the series winds down to a softer close; his term is fraught with slander as he remains neutral while the Congress splinters into two parties, who both turn on him, eventually moving him to pass the controversial Alien and Sedition Laws. He retires with quiet dignity and suffers the sorrows of the age when he loses children to alcoholism and cancer and even must bear the pain of losing his dearest friend. After reconciling with Jefferson, the two jovially correspond until they both famously die on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the nation's independence, no less. It may seem anticlimactic to end on such a quiet note, but that's the beauty of John Adams: where all other accounts of the Revolution and the establishment of our country take place on the battlefield, this depicts the real front lines: the town hall meetings and diplomatic missions, in which philosophy shaped a nation and people like Adams had to kowtow to European leaders for the capital to make it a reality.

This series does have one major flaw, however, and that is in the frantic direction of Tom Hooper. For a miniseries about a relatively plain man who accomplishes extraordinary things with words, not action, the camera moves at a breakneck pace, with handheld tracking shots even when people aren't moving. In the courtroom scene of the first episode, the camera darts around Adams and the jury, abruptly cutting at time to begin again, presumably because the first cameraman tripped and fell down. Mercifully, Hooper takes some downers when we get into the later episodes and puts the camera on a dolly and, saints preserve us, just sets it down and doesn't move it. His direction distracts from an otherwise perfect project.

Nevertheless, John Adams remains one of the greatest miniseries ever made, perhaps the best since Band of Brothers. While HBO's other big 2008 project, Generation Kill, is a better crafted work, it lacks the expansive yet intimate feel of this series. It turns an overlooked, maligned figure into perhaps the most interesting and vital of the Founding Fathers, fascinating in both his professional and private lives. It has a political relevance that is perhaps to transparent, but Adams' belief that war must always be the last resort when diplomacy fails obviously calls to mind the Iraq war, but Adams genuinely believed it. Its dodgy, incongruous direction aside, this seamless period recreation and slew of award-worthy performances is one of the few costume dramas compelling enough to make history truly come alive in ways beyond simply dressing people up for a few hours.

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