Thursday, October 2, 2008

Film Review: John Adams

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Near the end of John Adams, the elderly Adams (Paul Giamatti) is taken to see John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence before its public unveiling. He angrily dismisses the painting as romanticized bunk, noting that the signing of the Declaration at the 1776 Continental Congress was hardly the dignified event Trumbull depicts. He seems to be speaking for director Tom Hooper and scenarist Kirk Ellis, particularly with regard to their attitude towards fictional treatments of history. Most historical dramatizations falsify their subject matter: the great figures of the past are treated as paragons of nobility, their achievements are gilded in pomp and splendor, and the details of life in their times are presented in the most whitewashed, artificial terms. The approach Hooper and Ellis take with John Adams is the opposite. They show the Founding Fathers and their times in the grittiest, least-idealized terms possible.

It seems the best approach in theory, but previous efforts in this vein have often gone terribly wrong. Two examples that immediately come to mind are Roberto Rossellini's The Rise of Louis XIV and Oliver Stone's Nixon. Rossellini attempted to depict the young Louis XIV in grindingly realistic terms, treating him as an overwhelmed young fellow whom accident of birth had placed on the French throne. Stone was considerably more fanciful, but his goal was to present Richard Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) as a conflicted, emotionally complex man who was hardly the larger-than-life figure he had been made out to be. What Rossellini and Stone overlooked was that Louis and Nixon were not everyday people caught up in the tide of history; they were outsize personalities who made history happen. One couldn't look at Rossellini's nebbish Louis without thinking that he'd either end up a figurehead or assassinated, and Stone's Nixon was such an introverted mope that one couldn't imagine him getting elected dogcatcher, much less twice climbing to the apex of power in the most powerful country on Earth. It seems that it's not enough for demythologizers to strike an uncompromisingly realistic tone; he or she must also suggest the qualities that made the chosen subjects the legendary figures they are.

That's what Hooper and Ellis achieve in John Adams. The Founders are not shown to be great because they were idealists; they are great because they had the bullheaded determination to make those ideals a reality. Apart from Tom Wilkinson's expansive Benjamin Franklin, the Founders are not shown to be likeable people. They're self-righteous, impatient, and manipulative--about as disagreeable a bunch of personalities as can be imagined. And John Adams is the perfect focus for this treatment, because he was perhaps the bluntest, most uncompromising, and most personally obnoxious of them all.

The mini-series (derived from David McCullough's best-selling biography) shows an Adams who was unwaveringly determined to do what was right in all circumstances. Hooper, Ellis, and star Paul Giamatti make clear from the start that it was not in Adams' temperament to do things out of expediency or for others' approval. We first see him as he takes on the defense of the British soldiers tried in the Boston Massacre, a course of action that made him one of the most unpopular men in New England. As the series goes on, one can see there was probably no one among the Founders who was more disliked by those who dealt with him, whether during the negotiations at the Continental Congress, his service as a foreign diplomat during the Revolutionary War, his tenure as the first Vice-President, or his single term as President. What redeemed him in his contemporaries' eyes was his unflinching honesty, his intellectual rigor, and his strong ethical core. No one was better able to discuss the motives and goals of the Founders in terms of right and wrong. It was what drew Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), and George Washington (David Morse) to him, and what made this singularly unpleasant man one of the key figures in this country's history. Hooper, Ellis, and Giamatti dramatize this superbly.

The portrait of the off-putting Adams of history is balanced with the deeply sympathetic treatment of his private life. The love and deep sense of commitment he and his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) had for each other is beautifully developed. Hooper and Ellis take special care to show that the key aspect of the relationship was that she was his intellectual equal. But in keeping with their doggedly unromantic approach, the John and Abigail they show were hardly an idyllically happy couple. These two were nearly torn apart by the conflicts between duty to family and duty to the moral cause of the Revolution, but--and this is what makes the depiction of their relationship so profound--these storms ultimately served to strengthen their bond. One's heart also goes out to Adams because of the sadness of his experiences with his children. We see the pain of his having to compel his eldest son, John Quincy, into diplomatic service at an unconscionably young age because of the boy's foreign-language skills. The series also draws us into his grief over the early deaths of his son Charles (Kevin Trainor) and his daughter Nabby (Sarah Polley). The public John Adams is fully reconciled with his private self.

Hooper and Ellis extend their uncompromising view of Adams' life to the milieu he lived in. Eighteenth-century New England is shown to be as cold, wet, and uncomfortable as one would expect. One is also shown the ravages of disease throughout society, including a crude smallpox vaccination gone awry, and a mastectomy in response to breast cancer. There's nothing glamorous about most of the colonists one sees, particularly in Boston. Many seem little more than derelicts. The depiction of violence is also unsparing. A man is shown being stripped, tarred, and feathered at one point, and another is seen having his leg amputated after a gunshot wound. But the grittiness does have its lighter side. One is given repeated views of the wet, muddy bog that would become Washington, D. C. After Adams assumes the presidency, he and Abigail move into the (unfinished) White House. The sight of the elegant official residence sitting in the middle of a vast field of mud never loses its comic punch. And every character has conspicuously bad teeth, which look progressively worse as the series goes on.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the series is its depiction of the various historical figures. Benjamin Franklin is shown as a worldwise, joyous libertine, and Tom Wilkinson plays him with relish. Danny Huston's Samuel Adams is depicted as a vaguely disreputable rabble-rouser--the eighteenth century's answer to Al Sharpton. The portrayal of Thomas Jefferson is quieter. Stephen Dillane gives him a wary reserve. His every word seems careful and deliberate--the restrained delivery even dries out the romantic revolutionary nonsense he spouts in his enthusiasm for the French Revolution. The most amusing is Rufus Sewell's Alexander Hamilton, a conniving backstabber with a hilarious fetish for military dress. The funniest scene in the series is when Hamilton is showing off his designs for the new U. S. Army uniforms. Sewell's comic timing is terrific as he excitedly explains the significance of the button alignments and the other tailoring flourishes.

David Morse's performance as George Washington seems a bit off at first. The greatest of the Founders is introduced in the Continental Congress scenes, and Morse has the exceedingly proper manner for which Washington was famous. But he doesn't initially suggest the volcanic temper that manner was developed to contain. His Washington seems like a bit of a doofus in the early sections. But Morse's performance does a fine job of capturing the tensions between Washington's manner and temperament in the scenes during Washington's presidency. His best moment comes after Washington hears of Adams' efforts to officially confer an honorific like "Your Excellency" on the President. Washington tells Adams, "Mr. President will do," and despite the understated delivery, his irritation comes through beautifully. It's ultimately a sharp, thoughtful portrayal.

The performances of Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are the series' heart and soul. Giamatti never fails to convince one of Adams' intelligence, determination, and drive. He's equally adept in the more sentimental scenes of Adams' home life, and his achievement is his ability to reconcile the different sides of Adams into a single, unified characterization. Linney's Abigail isn't as richly written, but she beautifully conveys the dynamic between Abigail's stoic surface and the deep love she feels for her husband and children. She also fully convinces one of the depth of Abigail's own intellect, and the scenes of her arguing with Adams never leave one thinking they're anything but equals. Linney and Giamatti make as fine a team onscreen as John and Abigail Adams did in real life.

In all, the series is as well-rounded a portrait of a historical figure as one could ask for, and the period is superbly evoked. One can quibble over historical inaccuracies, and one wishes a better job had been done of explaining how the unlikeable Adams became the most prominent political figure in New England, but Tom Hooper and Kirk Ellis have managed quite an achievement. They demythologize the American Revolution, but they never lose sight of what made its principals great.

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