Last night wrapped up HBO’s miniseries event “John Adams,” about one of our nations most important, yet unknown, founding fathers.
Credit where credit is due. This is the most outstanding screen depiction of a founding father, I have ever seen. Kudos all the way around. Paul Giamatti owns John Adams. Playing him from his rise to prominence in 1770 Boston to his death in 1826, Giamatti presents Adams warts and all. Kudos to Tom Hanks and Play Tone for producing this adaptation of David McCullough’s groundbreaking book on Adams. I hope this bodes well for Hanks upcoming turn as Abe Lincoln, but we will see. At least, he knocked this one out of the park. Finally, I must pay tribute to the cast. David Morse’s plays the enigmatic Washington perfectly. Tom Wilkinson brings the perfect charm and presence to Benjamin Franklin. But, Stephen Dillane steals the show as Thomas Jefferson. This was critical as Adams’s relationship with Jefferson was such an important part of his story.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, the series received poor marks by critics. They must have been jacobins. I found it riveting, humorous, and glorious to watch. This is how history should be played. There was no effort to “sex it up” for the benefit of a 21st century audience out fear that we might be bored (think “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth the Golden Age”). Rarely have you seen a proper depiction of 18th century oral hygiene. Be afraid.
Aside from bad teeth, we see in detail the maneuvering and intrigue of the Continental Congresses that led to the Declaration of Independence. We see Adams’s true role (mostly lost to the history textbooks) as the foremost champion of independence. We also see the tension and frustration of Adams’s time abroad in Paris, Amsterdam, and London. Enthralling is Adams’s tenure as President and his time as the first occupant of the White House. It has changed quite a bit. Most of all we see his relationship with Abigail, his wife of 54 years. Rarely have you seen such a depiction of marriage on HBO. Usually they reserve positive depictions of marriage to shows about polygamists.
There is one surprising omission, that of Adams’s adamant opposition to slavery. Adams considered it an abomination. To be sure, slavery is present and not hidden, especially during Adams’s tenure in Washington (creating all sorts of ironies). But, I was surprised they did not make it more of an issue.
John Adams ended last night with the classic story of the American founders, Adams and Jefferson’s near simultaneous deaths on the Fourth of July, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. You could not write a better ending.
I suspect that John Adams will be playing in many high school classrooms for decades to come (do you really think they will make them read the book?). If that is the case, bravo! Bravo, HBO. I will trade an occasional John Adams for an idiotic Bill Maher any day.