There is something slightly off-putting about this man, John Adams. There’s nothing remotely heroic about him, nothing about his homely little person suggests inspiration; he has an uncomfortable stare and there is a whiff of pomposity about him; and while there is no doubt about his intellect, one does wonder about his emotions. Our first glimpse of him underscores this niggling uneasiness: a defeated man, struggling home through a wintry landscape to a bleak Boston circa 1770 where discontent oozes through cracks in everyday life and echoes off cobblestones. Little do we know at first glance that Adams is a reflection of his hardy little New England town, with an unprepossessing exterior masking greatness.
This is HBO’s John Adams. Based on the 2001 New York Times bestseller by David McCullough, this $100 million miniseries written by Kirk Ellis and produced by Tom Hanks among others, brings to vibrant life the second President of the United States, an unlikely hero of the American Revolution, as well as the times which gave him birth.
We begin a mere six years before the Declaration of Independence, in a Boston simmering with resentment against the British Crown for its restrictive trade practices and heavy taxation which comes without political representation at Westminster. There is no talk of independence yet, but there is violence in the streets and a mighty Empire is determined to deal strictly with this seaside town. As passions increase, revolt is in the air.
Adams (Paul Giamatti) is an ambitious lawyer who finds himself pulled in opposing directions by his loyalties: the law is English and he loyally intones “God save the King” at the end of his sessions in court but “Massachusetts is my country” as he puts it; at one end advancement beckons at the hands of England’s King and his representatives, at the other is his troublemaker cousin Samuel Adams (a marvelous Danny Huston juggling a fine balance between venality and heroism) who continues to fan his streak of patriotism and independence.
As the day of choice looms nearer and nearer, Adams is repulsed by the violent mob that is the precursor of the American Revolution, but his reason and intellect tell him the Crown is mistaken in its policies. As he stands at a crossroads, not just in his career but in his loyalty, Adams is unable to speak. “You do not speak, John,” says his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) in an understated masterpiece of a scene. “Qui tacit consentire.” (“Silence is consent.”)
It is commonly acknowledged that Abigail, who would go on to be called Mrs. President by her critics more than 200 years before Hillary Rodham Clinton faced criticism for being too uppity, was an integral part of her husband’s professional life as well as his personal. Not only were the two of them silly in love (he directed his letters to his “Miss Adorable”) but she had a mind of her own and she wasn’t afraid to show it. Rightfully then, John Adams the series and John Adams the man, both come alive when she enters the frame – unobtrusively and calmly but always pertinently. As The Economist, an English “newspaper” (it must be noted!), puts it:
Adams was also fortunate in his wife. Abigail was arguably America’s most impressive first lady, a first-rate intellect who devoted her life to tending Adams’s farm and raising a family of scholar-statesmen. Abigail was not the sort of woman to boast that she had solved this or that diplomatic problem because she had had a few people to tea. But she had strong views on racial and sexual equality, fulminating against “the sin of slavery” and advocating women’s rights.
She understands her husband – his weaknesses and his strengths – and she is the real core of a household where he plays erratic head. Adams is as unsettling a parent as he is a man: one moment full of bluff if awkward good humor, the next curt and absent. His eldest son John (who would go on to become a President himself) and daughter Abigail have each other to hold on to; young Thomas who throws mock cannon balls at his toy English soldiers while his father defends the real sort in court, lives his life mostly as a nuisance and occasionally a fond pet. The sight of Adams at home is a pretty great example of how it is really the children of great men who have to truly suffer their greatness.
Outside the Adams home, there are reminders that the American Revolution was just as violent as any other revolt – granted, the King they rebelled against lived an ocean away, but that didn’t save those that took up his cause. In the very first scene, Adams slowly makes his way past a tree festooned with snow-covered corpses or the snow-covered dummies of corpses: a grim warning to those who opposed the cause of liberty. In another scene, a group of newly arrived slaves ascend the block and watch in horror and incomprehension as an Englishman who tried to defend the Tea Act is stripped, tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. And although the Boston Tea Party is glossed over, the allusions to both it and the French and Indian War remind you of the racial tensions that then informed American culture.
For those of you with children under 10, this might not be the way you wish to introduce them to history. I’m well over 10 and I still feel slightly queasy about the tarring and feathering (perhaps because it sounds so silly – but looks so dire). On the other hand, that’s about as violent as this series gets even though there’s plenty of implied menace. This is history at its best: full of drama and humanity. It reminds you that even policy wonks, of which number Adams was definitely one, can lead deeply interesting lives. And that government is a matter of passion as well as intellect.
If I had to pinpoint one quality, I’d say John Adams is worth your viewing time solely for the way it manages to portray the greatness of ideas against the fallibility of humans. But there is so much more to savor here – like a damn good story. Is it any wonder that I loved it so?
Also starring Sarah Polley, Tom Wilkinson, Justin Theroux, Rufus Sewell, and David Morse as George Washington.