I always say that nothing good ever came out of American TV, but then I have to remind myself of The 10th Kingdom. And Faerie Tale Theatre. And Firefly. And Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Rome, The Golden Girls, Ugly Betty, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Heroes. And now John Adams, the HBO mini-series based on the biography by David McCulloch. At seven hours long, it’s not for the uncommitted—but I dare you not to watch the first part and not be sucked into it.
Laura Linney is always dependable, but I was skeptical of Paul Giammatti. However, as Abigail and John Adams respectively, they are a force of nature. Portraying these two from 1770 through 1826 is a massive undertaking, and they are more than up to the task. In fact, the casting for the entire venture is superb. When I was fifteen or so, I read Fawn Brodie’s biography of Jefferson and learned of the concept of the satellite sons, the cult that sprang up around Washington, including Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton. They were a fascinating if incongruous bunch, and the one about whom I knew the least was Adams. This is true for almost everybody; even though he’s on the money like the rest of them, he’s not well-known. What the mini-series does is introduce both the facts of his life but also the characters surrounding him, showing everyone in a mostly balanced light.
Point in fact is Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin (who Paul Cornell thought was King of the United States, apparently). When we (and Adams) meet Franklin during the first Continental Congress, we find him a charming and educated character with the right thing to say at all times, though his approach to politics—maneuvering and diplomacy—differs to Adams’ (New England) forthrightness. When Adams becomes minister to France during the Revolution, he finds Franklin’s decadent, Frenchified ways about as difficult to work with as picking up mercury with a fork (to steal from Lloyd George there). To be fair, the French court is simply shown as a completely different entity than plainspoken New England—and Franklin understands how to get results while Adams has difficulties. Laugh-out-loud funny is when Franklin tells Adams, to fit in with the French court, he must get a mistress. "Mr. Franklin!"
George Washington is similarly superbly cast. He in every way looks the part, from towering over the heads of all his countrymen at 6", to his dentures in later life. I’ve been to Washington’s farm at Mount Vernon, so I can see from where his patient, plain-minded Virginia character comes from. The fact remains that he was undeniably brave, offering Adams his military support when the rest of the Congress was leery of getting involved, as well as his loyalty and pure intentions. The mini-series stays almost completely out of the fighting of the American Revolution, aside from what touched John Adams directly. Let Washington biographies tell that story. Adams correctly predicts that Franklin and Washington will get all the credit for establishing the new nation, and indeed Washington adoration has always prevailed.
Adams meeting Jefferson at the Congress was a magical moment. I did remember from the Jefferson biography that these two became good friends only to break during their presidencies and finally reconcile very late in life. My mom has always admired Jefferson, and I went to Jefferson Middle School, where the words from the Declaration of Independence were emblazoned on the walls: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." He was so perfectly shown here, it was like seeing Jefferson in the flesh. When Adams first met him he was shy, retiring, very educated country gentleman from Virginia whose moments of genius came from a somewhat dreamy and detached demeanor. By the time they were both in Paris, he was an idealistic, charismatic speaker who charmed Abigail Adams enough to make her husband jealous. The mini-series makes no bones about his being a slave owner and at the end of his life even shows Sally Hemmings at his bedside. It really succeeds in showing how the rift between Adams and Jefferson grew, and it’s completely believable in motivation and effect. Their reconciliation is similarly beautifully-handled, and the sequence in which they both die on the same day (July 4th, 1826) is haunting.
By the fifth episode I was wondering where Alexander Hamilton was, and when I saw the name Rufus Sewell in the credits, I thought, "He can’t be Hamilton!" But sure enough, he was. Modern Americans can thank Hamilton for our bank, our national debt, and the Continental Army, but the mini-series makes clear that Adams and Jefferson both despised him, if for different reasons. I’ll have to re-read my history books but I always thought Hamilton was illegitimate. The mini-series said nothing about this nor his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. But it did make him out to be a somewhat overzealous, detail-oriented man, creating another absolutely hilarious scene with John Adams. (What I DO remember about Hamilton from 7th grade was that in the late 18th century when all men wore hose, it was fashionable to wear rounded pieces of wood if your calves weren’t good enough. But Hamilton had such good calves he didn’t have to do that. I had no chance to check out Rufus Sewell’s calves because the costumes were a bit too Federalist.) Also making a surprise appearance was Tom Hollander as George III. It was a brief, one-scene part, but it was startling and memorable.
If the casting and acting is good, the writing by Kirk Ellis is practically flawless. As a student looking at how a winning script is made up, I was conscious of watching how scenes were written, were alternated, how events in Adams’ life were neatly broken up into seven parts. It does not begin until 1770, when he is 35, and already married. When we meet him, we immediately see three important things: a) a brutal Boston winter and Adams’ New England hardiness, a facet of character that will stay with him throughout his life; b) the Boston Massacre; c) and the fact that Abigail and John Adams may be the most perfect pair of lovers the world has ever seen. Their love, throughout their long and complex lives, is just amazingly enduring and heartfelt, through thick and thin, and all kinds of challenges. You can see that they are best friends as well as husband and wife and parents, partners, and lovers. (Reuniting in Paris after a separation of several years is a passionate sex scene between two "middle-aged" people that puts to rest any notions of frosty Puritanical New Englanders!) I was somewhat familiar with their letters to each other, but hadn’t understood the full extent of their partnership—until the end he called her, "my dear friend."
The first episode gives us an idea of the brilliance of Adams the lawyer as he defends the unpopular British soldiers embroiled in the Boston Massacre. (For those unfamiliar with the Boston Massacre, it happened in the winter that a Bostonian crowd provoked the British soldiers to fire upon them, killing several people.) It is to his credit that he manages to get them acquitted despite extreme public sentiment against them. It also establishes his extreme impartiality, and it’s amazing to consider our second President first thought his fiery cousin Sam Adams’ revolutionary notions excessive. An absolutely unforgettable image from the first episode is a poor British tea merchant who has the misfortune to land in Boston when George III (in order to make up for the huge debt from the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War) taxed the colonists on tea and just about everything else. He is tarred and feathered, and it’s not pretty. It appalls Adams, but John Hancock (making a cameo) finds it fair play.
The first few episodes introduce us to the Adams family, the sons John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas, and the daughter, Abby. As evidence of good writing, Kirk Ellis shows us from the beginning that John Quincy (who will become the fifth President of the United States; alas, no vision of James Madison, "smaller than a bar of soap") is a Good Son, while Charles (who will eventually end in penury and disease) is a handful. Abigail is one of the first to inoculate her children and herself against small pox while John is away in France. Abby survives, to be played by Sarah Polley (lately seen in Beowulf & Grendel) who marries a Colonel Smith and unfortunately succumbs to breast cancer (and breaks her parents’ hearts). (Might I make a small digression here to say that while all the New Englanders in the story have proper Bostonian accents, all the Virginians seem to have absorbed a Somerset accent. I’m sure that’s proper, but it sounds very weird.)
And that is one of the few scores on which John Adams cannot be seen to be sympathetic: the high standard to which he holds himself, his wife and his children. He refuses to give his consent when John Quincy wishes to marry early in life. He holds disapprobation for Abby’s husband right up until after her death, when at last he apologizes for his unyielding ways. Instead of forgiving his prodigal son Charles, he disinherits him and lets him die without having reconciled. When he and Abigail leave their children to be tutored while they are being ambassadors, you wonder how much of their neglect caused Charles’ downfall. In France Adams also comes off as something of a buffoon, but overall he is portrayed immensely sympathetically. While in Amsterdam in an attempt to raise capital and credit for the Revolution, he gets extremely ill and with no one to care for him, is terrifyingly close to death.
In the second part, we see the slow transformation of Adams from a conservative subject of the Crown into a revolutionary. I didn’t think I ever realized how important the Declaration of Independence really was, how brave and foolhardy it must have seemed to declare sovereignty from Mother England. The funniest thing my friend Katie ever said to me was to refuse to come to Thanksgiving because "I don’t think I should celebrate your country breaking away from mine." (She was, of course, getting Thanksgiving confused with 4th of July. She did eventually come to Thanksgiving) However, does that mean there is still animosity between England and America? Because it was certainly unheard of to do what we did in 1776, and forgive me if I do end up feeling a bit patriotic about our sheer boldness and adherence to "no taxation without representation." We were there first! Before France, before anybody. (To be fair, Britons, you did have your Civil War . . . but you went back to your monarchy, from which you have never returned!) The mini-series portrays the naysayers very well and their case, that they had everything to lose, shows what a gamble the early revolutionaries pitched their lives and liberties on—all for the sake of ideals, really. It is most inspiring, and no wonder some of my overzealous countrymen today think that bringing democracy to certain parts of the world is our "national duty."
Despite his earliest shining successes, Adams encountered much difficulty. In France, in Holland, in England, and then when he returned as Washington’s vice-president, his path was riddled with difficulties that we seem to have forgotten in wake of Washington’s military successes and Jefferson’s acquiring of the Louisiana Purchase. His tenure as President was marred by the Alien and Sedition Acts (which were a severe blow to Freedom of Speech), which really embittered Jefferson against him. The fact remains that we were seriously on the brink of a war with France in 1799, which Adams was able to prevent. To be honest, I don’t think France was quite unjustified in expecting us to help them against the British once they had declared war on England—their help in sending troops and money during our Revolution not only bankrupted them and caused their Revolution, but probably won ours! (I was indeed disappointed not to see the Marquis de Lafayette. I hope someday there’s a mini-series on the French Revolution as good as this one is on the American Revolution.)
It is depressing to note that had Tom Hanks not put his money behind this as executive producer, the thing probably would not have gotten made. But we are glad he did, because in addition to everything else, the costumes, the sets, and the on location shooting is just spectacular. I can’t begin to imagine how expensive all of that was. I love seeing the costume move from the robe à l’anglaise of the 1770s to the big hats and French sacques of the 1790s to the high waists mimicking the Empire styles of the Federalist period. It’s funny to see the 35-year-old Adams with shaved head and russet wig in 1770 become almost Franklin-like when wigs are abandoned by 1800. (In some circles at least.)
In old age, Adams gets increasingly crotchedy. He spends his time at his farm in Peacefield, Massachusetts, writes his memoirs, and lives to the ripe old age of 91! He is devastated when Abigail precedes him in death; his last words are, "Abigail . . . Jefferson survives me." (In fact Jefferson had died a few hours before Adams did. Isn’t that spooky?) He has lived to see the White House built in the swamp that is Washington City (still a bad choice of a capitol, but I believe the Southerners wanted it moved from Philadelphia for obvious reasons). The end is not on a depressing note, however, but Adams’ exhortation to future generations of Americans to follow the ideals for which his generation fought so hard. I wonder what he would make of us today? I wonder if he would cast a kind eye to what I’m doing—though a down-to-earth New Englander at heart, he did enjoy Europe at least a little. So be assured, Mr. Adams, I will cast my ballot in 2008—for my right to do that, I raise my pen to you.