The HBO miniseries John Adams which ran last year is now on DVD. My mother bought a copy for us, assuring my husband and me that it is a film we will want to watch over and over again. She was right. It is difficult to analyze the production without having first read David McCullough's acclaimed biography. I have not read it, and so am reflecting merely as someone who loves eighteenth century history and period pieces. John Adams is a superb production which brings to life a statesman and Founding Father who has been brushed aside so often in the history of the nation for which he sacrificed so much. Paul Giamatti captures the persona of our second President in what must be one of the most stellar portrayals of a historical figure of all time. Short-tempered and stocky, with a brilliant mind and principled character, Adams is shown as being the conscience of the American Revolution, tempering the radical genius of the likes of Jefferson and Franklin, insisting upon the rule of law and avoiding violence when possible.
The core of Adams' story, and indeed of his very being, is his relationship with his wife Abigail (Laura Linney.) It seems unlikely at first that plain, portly Adams could be the hero in a passionate love story but he most certainly is. The love of Abigail for her John is depicted with such intense beauty that I almost began to imagine that I was in love with him myself. John and Abigail's devotion to each other and to their children spilled over into their unwavering commitment to their country.
My favorite part, of course, is when Adams goes to France, where he retains his gravitas and propriety in spite of everything, especially in spite of Franklin, who had become the toast of the most decadent element of French high society. As Franklin enjoys himself to a superlative degree, Adams pines for his Abigail most endearingly. The one flaw I found in the film which really bothered me is the scene where Adams is presented to Louis XVI. Louis XVI is miserably and most inaccurately depicted. The King was a plain, blunt man, rather like Adams himself, not a mincing popinjay. And he was tall. Furthermore, Louis would never have made fun of Adams. I am disappointed.
Adams seemed to do better in England, where he was sent as ambassador. When Adams is presented to King George III, he is obviously awed by meeting the sovereign against whom he had helped to lead a revolution; there is a sort of meeting of minds between the two men. King George, like King Louis, actually had a great deal in common with Adams, sharing a love of simplicity and devotion to family and hard work.
Overall, the HBO production does not spare the Founding Fathers; the quarreling, the back-stabbing, the character flaws are all there, as well as the ingenuity and heroism. The weaknesses in the American experiment, elements that would plague the nation in future years, such as slavery, are not glossed over. It was patriots such as Adams who made the system work; he perceived his duty to serve his country in an elected office, only to surrender the reins of power when the term expired, and go home.
There is no monument to John Adams in Washington, D.C. as there are monuments to Washington and Jefferson, as least not that I have ever been aware of. The new film is in some ways the best memorial of all, since it shows to the American people what it is to be truly committed to one's spouse, family and country. Honesty, loyalty, diligence and integrity... these are qualities which John and Abigail Adams embodied, and which we have begun to forget, although they made our country great. Share