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August 27, 2008

A Belated Tip of the Three-Cornered Hat

I don't subscribe to HBO, so I had to wait to see the "John Adams" miniseries until it came out on DVD. I can already imagine the voluminous, indignant letter Adams would have sent HBO, detailing his objections to historical events taken out of sequence or context--the DVDs' own timelines reveal them--not to mention his outrage at the portrayal of his intimate behavior with Mrs. Adams in the boudoir. (Right behind it would have been a letter from Thomas Jefferson, expressing his outrage at the casting of an Englishman to play him.) However, we residents of 2008 can only judge a miniseries by its entertainment value, and from that standpoint "John Adams" is outstanding in every way.

There were two main objections to the miniseries when it first appeared, both to my mind completely unsound. The first was that the series made Adams less admirable than he was in David McCullough's Pulitzer-winning biography. Frankly, that's the one thing I found wanting in McCullough's book--that he tended to gloss over Adams' well-documented character flaws. Screenwriter Kirk Ellis did a wonderful job of presenting the whole man--vain, petty, quarrelsome, yet also strong, brilliant, courageous, loving, and incorruptible. Which is more admirable, I ask you--a plaster saint, or a difficult, even impossible man who achieves greatness by fighting and largely overcoming his faults?

The second criticism was that Paul Giamatti was unconvincing as Adams, a slam unfounded to the point of insanity. Who did they want as Adams--Clint Eastwood? Giamatti is not only an apt physical match for the historical Adams, he is also perhaps the greatest living expert in playing lovably flawed men who struggle with themselves to do the right thing. Vocally, Giamatti does a brilliant job of handling Adams' various orations, and he brings ferocious life to Adams' iron determination as well as to his loneliness and uncertainty. The scenes where Adams is alone and ill in the Netherlands, struggling to persuade unresponsive bankers to lend the fledgling America the money it needs to survive, are heart-wrenching beyond measure.

I could write much, much more about this enthralling miniseries. Suffice it to say that Laura Linney, as Abigail Adams, is fully Giamatti's equal, just as Abigail Adams was her husband's match in every way. (If they both don't take home Emmys this year, it will be an injustice of monstrous proportions, even by the standards of a notoriously unjust awards program.) I must also pay homage to the first-rate performances of David Morse as George Washington, Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, Sarah Polley as John and Abigail's ill-fated daughter Nabby, and Kevin Trainor as Charles, John and Abigail's pathetic wastrel son. The production is marked by its superb attention to detail--I noted with pleasure the black burn-marks on the walls behind the candle sconces. This is the first portrayal of the American Revolution, in TV or cinema, that really made me feel I was witnessing daily life in the 18th century as it really was. (Sometimes it gets gruesome: the scene in which Abigail has herself and her children inoculated against smallpox will haunt your nightmares for months.) "John Adams" is an excellent, excellent production. If you haven't seen it, rent it now.

About August 2008

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