John Adams

It’s all about the teeth.

Aside from the brilliant acting, spectacular setpieces, and sweeping epic scale of HBO’s John Adams, it’s the teeth that stand out more than anything.  To wit: as people age, so do their teeth, and in days long gone when toothpaste and mouthwash were as common as combustion engines and power tools, the older one got, the worse his teeth looked.  But in too many historical movies, be they epics or simple homespun character tales, nary a yellowed bit of enamel is to be found.  Be it Braveheart, A Knight’s Tale, The Passion of the Christ, or even post-apocalyptic movies like Terminator Salvation and Waterworld, nothing destroys the carefully crafted immersive quality of a film like gleaming pearly whites.

In John Adams, teeth are just one of a host of details used to create the most realistic representation of a historical time period I have seen since the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.  Teeth are dirty, stained, and deteriorate over time, and this adds a level of realism rarely seen in movies today.  Every bit of early America is meticulously recreated onscreen in this masterwork of cinematography, and each scene is held together by the strength of Paul Giamatti’s acting as he portrays one of the most important figures in American history:  our second president himself, Mr. John Adams.

John and Abigail Adams, played by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.

The miniseries opens with Adams being asked to, of all things, represent a group of British soldiers who had fired into a crowd of unruly colonists.  Opening with this event, as opposed to other defining moments in Adams’ life or early political career, is a stroke of brilliance as it sets the tone for the rest of the eight-hour show:  this is not the John Adams we are used to reading about in textbooks.  This, we soon find out, is the real John Adams–the one who struggled with personal doubts, continually strove to prove himself, argued with his wife and dear friend Abigail, had severe fallings-out with his children, and fought tooth and nail to hold the fragile democracy together that he was so instrumental in creating.

Throughout the course of the series we are presented with an array of events that not only shaped the course of our nation, but affected Adams on a very personal level.  In the early days of the continental congress we see Adams bicker with delegates over the very idea of proposing independence, and we begin to realize that the picture of our early days is not nearly as rosy as we may have been led to believe by our schoolbooks.  The declaration of independence, written mostly by Adams’ friend Thomas Jefferson, was not signed in a neat little ceremony with all the representatives of the colonies gathered happily together in Philadelphia.  We see the revolutionary war through the eyes of soldiers and commoners who fought hard and bled harder.  A bitterly real plague of smallpox, from which Adams’ family is not immune, cripples New England.  In the years following the revolution we see Adams muddle along as a diplomat to France and the Netherlands, striving so hard to represent his country while not becoming mired in the pleasantries and ceremonies which, in his view, only hampered real diplomacy.  We see his lonely days as Washington’s vice president, his bitter term as president, and finally his waning years at his Peacefield home in Massachusetts.

David Morse, grateful that he got to keep his real teeth for the role.

But the sheer scope of this movie would be nothing without characters big enough to fill it, and John Adams fulfills this in spades.  George Washington, played impeccably by David Morse, was a real man with real struggles and doubts, not the cherry-tree-chopping saint most of us have read about since childhood.  Benjamin Franklin, far from the kite-flying inventor we have come to know, was a diplomat through and through–loathe to take sides even in the heady days of our revolution, and indulging far too much in the pleasures afforded him as an ambassador to France.  We also see, played with exquisite realism, other figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, Benjamin Rush, and other founders of our nation who are as brilliant and thoughtful and scheming and conniving as any politician today.

Through it all, though, is Adams’ rock.  His anchor.  His light in times of trouble.  His wife, Abigail, who struggles through years of separation from her husband while he is overseas in France, and not only raises their children on her own but stays fiercely devoted to her husband.  Such a character requires an actress who is not only brilliant and strong, but able to display these traits without losing an ounce of her femininity–a bra-burning militant she most certainly was not.  Laura Linney rises to the challenge of portraying one of America’s foremost females with dignity and grace, and in doing so presents one of the most astounding portrayals of a historical figure I have ever seen.

Contemplating the consequences of declaring independence.

John Adams is a force, to be sure, but much of the movie consists of long scenes of protracted dialog–often about political matters or national affairs.  The jumps between time periods are also a bit startling:  one moment John Adams is being elected, and the next he is arriving at the construction site of the white house, with nothing to indicate the passage of years other than grayer hair and tattered clothes.  Much of the actual family drama is merely hinted at, and the conflict with Adams and his youngest son draws to an unfortunate conclusion without ever really being built up enough in the meantime.

Still, this miniseries will stand among the great historical epics, and the way in which it brings a sense of realism to our founding fathers is so powerful it should be mandatory viewing in any social studies classroom.  In a scene near the end, Adams is presented with a painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Incensed, he tells the artist it is terrible, as such a picturesque scene never took place.

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