Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Now that the John Adams mini-series (as they used to call them, I prefer serial movie) is over, I’ll miss it.

I wasn’t crazy about Paul Giamatti as the young John Adams, but I wasn’t crazy about some other aspects of the early segments either. As Adams aged though, Giamatti seemed to grow into the role, or I became less distracted by what I initially considered miscasting.

I loved the look of the whole movie, from start to finish. Some wonderful period landscapes and settings and costumes. And the individual character’s looks were all pretty historically correct from what I’ve studied.

I liked the veracity of the teeth rotting and the skin not being covered in make up, as in most Hollywood historical dramas. Though I was distracted at first by David Morse’s false nose to enhance his role as Washington. I don’t think he needed it. But as always, I was impressed with his acting, as I was with most of the other actors, especially Laura Linney, who I think deserves some kind of special award for her performance throughout (although I have friends who thought she was channeling Katherine Hepburn at times).

Except for the basic facts—dates and provable conditions etc.,—history is interpretation, of course, and I didn’t agree with the way some of the writing and directing interpreted this story.

For one, where was Tom Paine? One of the prime movers of the American Revolution was missing as a central figure. And my research says Doctor Benjamin Rush was actually extremely radical compared to Adams, and yet in this he is portrayed almost as Adam’s lackey.

But of course, the story is told from the perspective of justifying Adam’s centrality to the revolution—the lead up to it, the actual war, and the resulting creation of a new form of government, etc.

And I know it was based on McCullough’s book, trying to set the record straight, or revise previous historical views on Jefferson and Adams. And it’s true that Jefferson has gotten more attention and accolades from posterity compared to Adams.

But, in my opinion, he deserves them. As JFK supposedly said at a dinner in the White House attended by Nobel laureates, or some such distinguished intellectuals, “This much brain power hasn’t sat at this table since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Or words to that effect.

And yet, early on in the series, Jefferson was portrayed as an almost passive dandy, a foil for Adams’ genius, or a party to it, rather than the fiery revolutionary and original intellectual he was. His accomplishments outside politics and governance alone would make him a giant historical figure.

And historically, especially in his memoirs, Adams often came across as vindictive, petty, and self-centered. There’s a bit of that in the last few segments of JOHN ADAMS, but it’s mostly portrayed as justified, rather than the result of bitterness and egoism. There’s no denying his importance to the creation of the United States, but there was a reason the others were more honored, and not just that Washington was the tallest man in the bunch and Jefferson the best looking.

Not that I didn’t love much of what Giametti’s Adams’ ends up saying and doing in this movie, especially in the last two episodes. Whether Adams really did literally point to a wild flower in his last days and exclaim his newfound awe in the face of creation I don’t know, but it certainly was a miraculous bit of movie-making.

It would be petty of me, I suppose, to quibble about the veracity of that scene, as it would be to quibble with the emotional outbursts of various characters throughout JOHN ADAMS. These scenes may work as drama, and I was moved to tears many times, but historically, it’s highly unlikely this kind of behavior happened at all, let alone often. Even today, older members of my family, who still adhere to the old ways, rarely cry or exhibit fear or uncontrollable grief or other personal emotions, even in front of their own families. Giamatti’s Adams seemed to be ready to burst into tears through most of the movie, and often did.

And the physical touching, and sometime lack of physical propriety, as well as the outbursts of blunt personal feelings, often rang untrue for the times to me. I grant the dramatic license of attempting to make it relevant to a contemporary audience, but if all the characters had behaved more circumspect, the power of their fewer brief outbursts would have been all the more moving, as in the case of Linney’s Abigail Adams. She seemed truest to the times of all of them, though Jefferson was also mostly self-contained in a way that seemed appropriate.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved JOHN ADAMS. I thought it was great film-making and great TV, just not entirely great history. But it’s a story that needs to be told, and told again and again, though I would like to see it now told from Jefferson’s perspective, as well as Washington’s and Paine’s, and Franklin’s and some of the other giants we were lucky to have as our Founders.

Bits and pieces of their stories have been told in films, but none with the breadth and depth of JOHN ADAMS. Let’s get it all down in serious serial film-making (in order to cover the time spans without having to alter facts and combine characters etc.) for future generations. And then move on to Jackson and Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR (as well as Frederick Douglas, Sacajawea, Chief Joseph, Sojourner Truth, Sitting Bull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, etc.).

In the meantime, we have THE TUDORS to watch, which is so historically inaccurate, often deliberately (as the producer said in an interview, it’s a TV show, not history) that you might as well call it DAYS OF OUR LIVES in period costumes.

Why anyone would risk a kingdom and eternal damnation for this Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) I could not fathom, especially a king with access to any woman he wants, at least in this version of the telling. But, I suspect it’s because Dormer was willing to expose her breasts and have them manhandled (I assume other women might not mind this, given that Henry is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which, by the way, is like having Brad Pitt play John Adams, I know I know, they say Henry VIII was fairly decent looking in his youth, but it’s hard to believe from the evidence of later portraits painted of him).

Anyway, it’s nice to see Peter O’Toole still working (and playing the Pope! A very louche Pope obviously)) and the poet Thomas Wyatt (Jamie Thomas King) getting some naked breast action and more, and just on the strength of a love poem. You go Wyatt.

The sad thing is, these historic dramas, especially one with as much exposed flesh as THE TUDORS, will be watched by young people who already think Iraq is in Asia and WWII was fought in Vietnam and Europe is a country and New Zealand is somewhere near Zealand.

It’s getting easier and easier to distort the actual historic facts, so that instead of discussing our different interpretations of those facts, we end up arguing over which complete falsehoods are facts and which absolutely provable facts are false.

God help us.


JIm said...

Good review. Curious; who would you have preferred as a young John Adams?

Lally said...

Not sure, maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman, a young Charles Durning...hmmm....Charles Laughton would have been great in his day...(and was a terrific Henry VIII of course)...Donald Sutherland could have done it when he was younger...ooohhhh, Orson Welles would have been perfect.

Anonymous said...

Might be good fodder for a screen play from an objective perspective, if that is possible.

Would be right in the vein of a PBS series.

mike3 said...

But Iraq IS in Asia!