November 28, 2009

a very special episode of At Times Dull

today david came to chicago and we marathoned the 7-hour john adams miniseries. there is much to say.

john adams - a few weeks ago i told my friend kait of our plans to watch the miniseries. "john sadams?" she asked, "because that thing will have you crying in 20 minutes." and yeah, what the crap, hbo? the miniseries is directly based on david mccullough's book, which is a real credit to him, but having read that very book i'd have to say that john adams is NOT that depressing. in fact, mccullough frequently paints him as the most candid, amiable of the founding fathers, most of whom where stiff-lipped aristocrats. the miniseries would have you think he was a big crankypants, always whining and badgering and huffing and puffing when he didn't get things his way. the impression i had of him was that he was brilliant, ambitious, persuasive, and extremely likeable, and that his moody, vain attributes were just the common b-side of a type a personality.

of course, you say, who am i to judge the character of john adams? i am no one. but consider the fact that he was repeatedly elected to public office, he was repeatedly chosen by his peers in government for the highest offices available, and george washington, benjamin franklin, and thomas jefferson all regarded him as talented and a reliable friend. the man depicted by hbo was simply too much of a downer to have accomplished any of those things.

the making-of featurette, which i rushed to view, is drenched in the goal "not to romanticize the founding fathers." this is a noble goal. as the director said, to understand the world of 1776, you have to live in a world where you don't know who the founding fathers are. they're not icons yet, they're still just dudes in wigs who spend a lot of time debating. and they are portrayed in the miniseries as very human, with all their flaws hanging out. the great providence of the american revolution is not the actions of a single one of them, but that they were all alive at the same time. they, shall we say, complete each other. i will now presume to call myself a student of the american revolution and say that, as a student of the american revolution, the scenes that had me on the edge of my seat were the personal interactions between the founding fathers, whom in the last few months have come to play a bizarrely large role in my daily life. there's a scene when franklin, adams, and jefferson are sitting around putting red pen to the first draft of the declaration. there's a scene where the continental congress does a roll call vote for independence. there's a scene where george washington is sworn in as president on a balcony in philadelphia. there's a scene where john and abigail drive up to the white house, still under construction, still called the president's house. some of the hair and make-up on the production is pure alchemy, and as david mccullough said in an interview, the first time he walked up to david morse in costume as george washington, it was heart-stopping.

these scenes gave me the goosebumps. i would refrain from saying that history came to life, but i guess i just did.

pride & prejudice: being the bromance between john adams and thomas jefferson: i believe i've already written at some length about the relationship between adams and jefferson, but it's the part of early american history that i find most captivating. i was delighted to find that i share this in common with david mccullough.

adams and jefferson died on the same day - july 4 1826 - the 50th anniversary of american independence. mccullough said that it was this extraordinary fact that he first wanted to write about, and that in exploring how to do so without being swept up in the glamour and legacy of jefferson, he discovered that adams' was the story that needed to be told. even so, the extraordinary friendship between the two steals the show in the both the book and the miniseries.

they met in 1776. adams was a brash orator and jefferson a shy idealist. adams pulled jefferson out of his shell to write the declaration. jefferson becomes a superstar. a few years later they both end up in paris as diplomats, and form a close friendship. when the adams' are called away to london, they are most saddened by the fact that they'll be away from jefferson's company. after the constitution is ratified, both men return to america to serve in the new federal government - adams as vice president and jefferson as secretary of state. as two political parties emerge, they find themselves torn asunder by domestic politics. as adams was part of the ruling federalist majority - first as vice president and then as president - it was jefferson who turned to the destructive political machinations of the minority, hurting adams professionally and personally. the rift was almost a matter of policy until after adams retirement when he found out that jefferson had secretly been funding a newspaper with the express instructions to write damaging and frequently untruthful articles about adams. and that was when he broke both adams and my heart.

adams, it should be said, always refused to say anything bad about jefferson. even when running against each other in the presidential election of 1801, adams referred to jefferson as "a dear friend of many years."

but in their retirement, when both had wearied of national politics, adams wrote jefferson a letter, and jefferson wrote back. after not hearing or seeing each other in over a decade, they began a correspondence that lasted until their deaths. historians drool over it. and in the miniseries, it's the happy ending. in a touch that would be way too adorable were in not entirely factual, they had busts of each other in their bedrooms. busts. this stuff kills me.

abigail adams: for the love of heaven would someone give this woman a monument.

benjamin franklin: being a genius at french etiquette is maybe not something to be proud of.

paul giamatti: i remain unconvinced.

david mccullough: what a gem.

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