John Adams: ‘It Is As It Was’

Tom Hooper, the director of the new HBO miniseries "John Adams," is in love with his subject, at least as much as David McCullough showed himself to be in his bestselling book of the same title. Not a scene of the seven-part miniseries (debuting tonight on HBO) takes place without Adams or his wife, Abigail, at its center, the camera demanding on their behalf, "look at me, look at me." Yet the two characters, ably played by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, are worth looking at, if simply because they are two of the more commanding figures in the great and still too little understood drama of America’s founding. And while the film is clearly the product of a love affair, Hooper’s affection, like that of McCullough’s (whose work inspired the film), is neither blind nor fantastical, but open-eyed and realistic. Too often in our historical dramas, and this is particularly true of treatments of the American revolution (the musical "1776" or the Disney melodrama "Johnny Tremain" come to mind), the viewer is indoctrinated into a mythology that nearly dehumanizes its subjects. "John Adams" is not this, but neither is it documentary or an Oliver Stone-esque Freudian fantasy, but rather a compelling historical drama that has an obvious and abiding respect for its subject and the human reality that is the essence of American history. Avoiding the listless exposition that can plague historical films, "John Adams" plunges the viewer immediately into the middle of Adams’ life and into the center of a dark, almost barbarous Boston on the eve of revolution. The viewer sees a textured, three-dimensional depiction of a time and place that is sickly, dank and violent. To quote what someone was once reported to have said about another film, "it is as it was." This is no Disney Hall-of-Presidents, animatronic presentation of American history. Viewers are as likely to be repulsed by some of what they see as they are to be inspired. In episode one (airing tonight at 9pm on HBO), Giamatti’s Adams struggles to navigate this physically and politically turgid terrain. His loyalties at first appear divided, between his "country," Massachusetts, and his king. Yet his loyalty to the law, and the divine guarantees he sees at its roots, emerges as decisive, facilitating both his adamant and eventually successful defense of the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial and his choice to begin on the path of dissent and, ultimately, revolution against the crown. In fact, it is during the depiction of the Boston Massacre trial that we see the film’s realism most clearly at work. The incident was a complicated human event, and the film immerses the viewer in its political and moral complexities, showing that the crowds abusing and provoking the redcoats were at least as much responsible for the tragedy as the soldiers who fired the shots. We also learn a good deal about Adams himself in these early scenes as well as his hugely formative relationship with his wife, Abigail. With Adams’ brilliance as well as his arrogance on full display, his wife admonishes him for his wordiness and his too-eager desire to impress: "You must mask your impatience with those less intelligent than yourself," she says at one point, adding later, "you do not need to quote great men to prove you are one." We also see in the first episode flashes of Adams’ infamous temper as he thoughtlessly scolds his children three times in forty minutes of film. Also on display is the emotional Adams, angrily yelling "this is barbarism" and coming to tears at one point during the brutal tarring and feathering of a man who did little more than insist that Massachusetts pay the tea tax the king demanded. McCullough and Hooper clearly subscribe to the "Great Man" theory of history, an unpopular view in this supposedly postmodern age. But it seems great events do frequently turn on the actions of a few exceptional people, actions that are anything but predetermined. The film captures this uncertainty well. One has the sense of watching a film narrated in the present tense. At any moment, McCullough reminds us in his book, these figures could have chosen otherwise and history would have taken a different turn. Right or wrong (and I suspect McCullough is right) this view of history makes for riveting storytelling. McCullough recently said that his hope for the film is that viewers "will come away knowing more about that all-important time, but will feel the reality of what happened and of what those caught up in the struggle went through." The filmmakers meet this standard and in the process produce a work of art worthy of McCullough’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography. Matt Malone, SJ
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10 years 10 months ago
Terrific review. Much more on point than Alessandra Stanley's inexplicable pan in the New York Times last week. One item that seemed particularly contemporary: Adams's impassioned plea for impartial justice for the British perpetrators of the Boston Massacre, as well as his emotional response to the 'tarring and feathering'; have special resonance in our Abu Ghraib world, where the rule of law, and the 'unalienable' rights of all human beings--two concepts so dear to Mr. Adams--seem not to be so dear to some of our current political leaders.


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