It is a melancholy rainy Saturday in the Tennessee valley today. It has been a week of beginnings and endings and the rain falls like tears to mark the passage of time. Spring ends winter, life is reborn. And yet life is finite. Which brings me to today’s topic.
I finished John Adams, the HBO miniseries, today. HBO has a history of bringing the best to television. They have a novel approach that is so fruitful one wonders why it is novel. It seems what they do is allow creators to create with minimal interference from non-creators who, while their instincts are for business still feel drawn to think they are creators but usually only manage to interfere with real artists. As it has been said, everyone is a critic. HBO at some point decided that deciding on money up front and then leaving the real artists alone was a better plan. The fruits of their labors have been extraordinary: The Sopranos, Rome, numerous comedy specials, Six Feet Under, Real Time with Bill Maher, numerous sports programs, and just lately the John Adams miniseries. High points in television programming that make them simply the best (an old advertising slogan that actually describes the product) network in an era of ubiquitous networks. Their movie purchases from theatrical release are lacking, but their original programming is of such high caliber that I continue to purchase their service every month. I am tempted by the variety of movies at Starz but HBO’s original programming keeps me loyal.
So on to the John Adams miniseries. Rarely has a drama looked at the founding fathers with such an accurate eye. Generally we wish to make saints of our original citizens. Just as we wish to look on history as a reflection of our own imaginary dialog with our lives. We see ourselves as Ptolomy, Socrates, Plato, Moses, Jesus, Newton, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Dalton, Watt, Einstein. In fact we more likely resemble one of the pitchfork or torch bearing members of the crowd storming the castle Frankenstein. Afraid of change and mired in our own worldview, we rail against the changes that later generations will think of as quaint, as history.
HBO’s miniseries biography of John Adams life showed him as flawed, arrogant, intellectual, and often right. Many things our current society looks on with disdain. We elevate the stupid because it doesn't challenge us. We deride the intelligent because we fear our inadequacies. We long for a simpler time, not realizing that times are never simple for those who live in them. We beckon to a celestial parent who knows that to ever be what we were born to be we must forsake our childhood and rely on ourselves. John Adams feared what we would become if we didn’t heed the better angels of our nature and thus pushed for harsh laws to keep men in line. A counterpoint was Thomas Jefferson who trusted what we were capable of being when we did but was somewhat naïve in his convictions. Washington was quiet and regal, taller than everyone else and virtually toothless at a young age. Franklin was a libertine more beloved in France than even in his own country, the hippie of the founding fathers. All these characters are finely drawn, as is the central relationship in the movie- that of John Adams and his wife Abigail. Despite their 18th century manners they seem more like a real married couple than most you ever see on television. They deeply care for each other and yet they often disagree. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney breathe life into these characters masterfully. As do every actor on screen. There isn’t a sour note struck by any of the portrayals.
In fact the whole miniseries is endowed with a kind of veracity that draws you into a world long gone. Every detail is as meticulously researched as the actors are inspired. The architecture, costumes, props, set dressing, down to things like saddles and hand tools are all as authentic as possible. And the production values are as good as any theatrical release. In the first episode Adams walks down the street in front of Boston Harbor and past him you first see the warehouses on the landward side and then the camera pans around and you see the harbor with dozens of ships docked. We don’t often stop to linger on the backgrounds but they strongly make the impression that you are in a real place. And never do they appear to be a special effect.
The series begins with Adams home and professional life before he becomes a revolutionary. All the high points are here. We see his defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. He is torn between the secessionist leanings of his cousin, Samuel Adams and the favor he has garnered in London by his successful defense of the soldiers. He becomes a member of the Constitutional Congress that drafts the Declaration of Independence. In Europe he makes a fool of himself as a diplomat. Returning after the war is over, he becomes the nation's first vice-president and then second president. The Alien and Sedition Acts are touched on, as are the lives of his children, one of whom would also be president.
The last episode is almost an epilogue. Adams old age and the losses that are the lot of a long life are chronicled. His daughter’s death from cancer, the loss of his beloved wife, and finally his own final contest with Thomas Jefferson to be the last of the founders to pass on end a story that has spanned almost 60 years of a mans life and the birth of our nation. A fitting end to watch on a melancholy rainy spring day.
The final words of the series are from a letter that Adams wrote to Jefferson just before his death and give a fine example of the quality of the entire production:
“My dearest friend,
“Whether I stand high or low, in the estimation of the world, my conscience is clear. I thank God that I have you for a partner in all the joys and sorrows, all the prosperity and adversity of my life. To take a part with me in the struggle. Should I draw you the picture of my heart you would know with what indescribable pleasure I have seen so many scores of years roll over our heads. With an affection heightened and improved by time. Nor have the dreary years of absence, in the smallest degree, effaced from my mind the image of the dreary untitled man to whom I gave my heart. You could not be, nor did I wish to see you, an inactive spectator.
“Now posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that your will make a good use of it. And if you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it. “