If David McCullough, and everyone behind HBO’s impressive seven-part miniseries adaptation of his book on John Adams is correct, than the founding father and second president of the United States of America was perfectly well aware that he was doomed to be consigned to history’s dustbin. It was inevitable, perhaps.
George Washington was the towering war hero and model of humble rectitude. Ben Franklin had the genius intellect and rascally wit to ensure that if he wasn’t lionized for the one, he’d be toasted for the other. Thomas Jefferson’s talent for self-promotion and moralistic stances made it almost inevitable that he would be remembered as the stalwart gentleman-scholar he seemed to believe himself to be.
Then there was John Adams.
Short, stout, and cranky, the John Adams of this miniseries is perpetually worried about being overshadowed by his more glamorous contemporaries. Though he knows it to be true, the worry over his posterity gnaws away at him like a weevil. It’s something that we don’t necessarily like to imagine that great men care about, popular history would much prefer them to spend their time making momentous decisions and if they have second thoughts, then let it be about whether they’ve done the right thing, not whether they’ll be given their due by future generations.
John Adams presents its protagonist as an inestimably flawed and imperfectly human character who, upon close examination, seems made all the stronger by his flaws; in other words, the perfect role for Paul Giamatti. Director Tom Hooper (Elizabeth I) opens the first of his jaggedly notched together episodes (“Join or Die”) in 1770, when Adams is a Boston lawyer who gets tossed into the revolutionary maelstrom by choosing to defend the British soldiers who shot to death several protestors.
It’s a sign of the show’s honorable intentions to eschew the expected plot devices that its whole opening is hinged around a founding father mounting a vigorous defense of the perpetrators of the Boston Massacre (how many school textbooks even mention that there was a trial?). By portraying him in such a fraught moment (men who would later be leading the revolution hurling insults at him and baying for the Redcoats’ blood) the episode evokes both Adams’ gruff forthrightness and ironclad devotion to the law, not to mention his astonishing abilities as an orator.
The beginning of John Adams also shows what a formidable presence in both his life and history Abigail Adams was, as she hands him back the draft of his closing arguments, saying, “You have overshadowed your argument with ostentatious erudition.” Laura Linney plays Abigail as the sensible one of the two, easily the equal of this perpetually worried intellect, and always available to cut him down to size in that sweet cutting like a knife way Linney has and employs well in the character of Abigail.
Though later stretches of the show don’t cover Abigail’s very public and quite fiery feminist persona and anti-slavery views, they at least stand as the rare work of historical fiction that doesn’t condescend to its women with the faint praise of equal treatment. Linney’s bright, passionate Abigail is every bit the intellectual and wit that Giamatti’s more dour Adams is, frequently mocking the great man for his preening self-regard and earning his near-fanatical devotion in response.
Coming out the gate so powerfully in the opening episode, John Adams can’t help but to lose a little momentum later on, even if it is for excellent reasons. Kirk Ellis’ script seems determined to not make Adams’ life into a Greatest Hits rendition, as it quite determinedly passes over great swaths of his life to concentrate in detail on a small number of climactic moments. Thus after the second episode builds on the drama of the first by showing Adams’ cornerstone role in the first Continental Congress at the time of independence—and introducing a wily Tom Wilkinson as Franklin—there’s a great leap to Adams’ time abroad as diplomat, skipping the Revolutionary War almost entirely. The point here is to explicate the crucial moments in Adams’ life, which didn’t always tie in so neatly with the bullet-point developments of early American history.
What the show is then free to concentrate on is character, and the personalities behind the creation of America. If there is any momentum lost by a relative lack of battles and big crowd scenes (this is an interior kind of show), John Adams is able to compensate by bringing together such an impressive squad of actors to play it through. Besides the aforementioned Wilkinson and Linney stand in equal regard the likes of Rufus Sewell as Alexander Hamilton and Stephan Dillane as Jefferson, all of them haggling briskly over events that will in a large part determine many events over the next couple centuries. Even a stoic David Morse is able to bravely shoulder the iconic weight of Washington, managing to come through unscathed; few actors would be so lucky. As regards the star, it is no exaggeration to say that in this series Giamatti creates as indelible a historical portrait here as George C. Scott did with General Patton.
The wisdom of John Adams’ makers is not just to avoid the powdered-wig iconography of too many a portrait of the founding fathers, but to actively tear down those limiting views of these revolutionary leaders and their tumultuous times. It’s no accident that some of the most memorable scenes in the series are not just made up of Adams’ bristly rhetoric but also those that came at the viewer from a corrective angle.
Besides the opening trial scenes there’s also the ones in which the Adamses settle into the brand-new White House (a nightmare of mud, smoke, and the cast-down faces of slave laborers) and most pungently the one where Adams tonguelashes artist John Trumbull for his famous and grand but utterly inaccurate painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This bent for accuracy is not just an indication of the filmmakers’ desires, but also a smart reflection of the mindset of John Adams himself, who once said (both in reality and in this series) “facts are stubborn things.”
To paraphrase Nelson Algren, you may find a grander greatness than John Adams, but never a greatness so real.