Monday, July 4, 2011

Movie Review: John Adams

Directed by Tom Hooper. 2008.

There is a great deal to admire in HBO's John Adams. Foremost perhaps is how well the screenplay fits the story to the medium. I often watch a program and conclude that the movie might have been better suited as a miniseries, or vice versa. Many television shows are not more than films stretched out unnecessarily, and usually inelegantly, to many times their proper length. John Adams overcomes this hurdle and takes advantage of the liberty that premiering on HBO provided. The series falls into seven parts of unequal length, avoiding the pitfall of having the story get chopped and stuffed into neat 50 minute segments. Too it accommodates details, spends more time in certain parts of the narrative than others, and skips over several periods, all of which would be hard to accept in a feature film. Indeed this is a fine screenplay and fine material for a miniseries.

John Adams' main theme is a rollicking martial tune orchestrated and its soundtrack is wholly appropriate, with selections influenced by Barry Lyndon and Master and Commander. The camerawork is a balance between plain television and elaborate cinematic styles, the former which would have grown dull and the latter which would have grown tiresome over the course of seven parts. The small simple interiors of the colonial houses really do make for a splendid contrast to the vast and ornate Parisian chambers.

Yet all of these technical details never distract and merely serve the story, which I am glad to say is a great success. It is not quite so much about the American Revolution though of course its events play a prominent part, but rather, and appropriately, about Mr. John Adams. I say "Mr. Adams" because it seems impossible for one not to develop an affection and admiration for Mr. after watching this series. Affection for this dutiful husband, father, and friend. Admiration for the citizen, lawyer, and political philosopher. Gratitude for the delegate, ambassador, vice president, and president.

The husband and father who spent time, years, away from his family. The lawyer who defended the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre. The author who wrote the  Massachusetts constitution between assignments to Europe. The delegate who, with the other members of the Continental Congress, risked his life to meet as a member of that body. (A body whose work was not to sign and flash about one glorious document, but to sit on endless committees and boards, to travel to and fro, and endlessly to debate the proper course of action.) The president who steered between British and French interests and immense pressure to declare war. Yet it is not quite so much that one comes away from John Adams impressed with the man's accomplishments so much as with his character. His character which he worked tirelessly to improve over his life, whose deficiencies (vanity, stubbornness, querulousness) he acknowledged and tried to remedy not for himself, but so he may carry out his duties to his family and country. He made a life's work of being a good man and one never doubts he lived the advice he gave his children, "Be good and do good."

Not just a life's work, but a life's effort. We mentioned some of his sacrifices, chiefly risking his life on a number of occasions and being parted from his family, which he undertook with heavy heart. He would, like any sensible man, have preferred to stay home with his books, farm, and family. Yet he went out far from his country of Massachusetts because he was asked and again we feel he lived the advice he gave to his children, that if offices will not be held by honest men, they will be held by others. He realized that some tasks require much. The life of a scholar requires many hours of lonely work. Scholarly success can be achieved no other way, as he told his sons. Again, while courting the help of the French for the Revolution, he defends his business and lack of knowledge of music thusly:

I must study politics and war, so that my sons will have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons must study navigation, commerce, and agriculture, so that their sons will have the right to study painting and poetry and music.
In this seemingly simple statement lies an important observation about life, or at least Adams' own political philosophy: a man cannot avoid being born in a place and time and that he is both coming and going. Certain times ask certain things and surely Adams would have preferred to do much else, but he was bound by duty to certain endeavors. If he and his children were to be free, then he need to know of war and politics. It was for another generation to make use of his sacrifice and study music and poetry. The scene in which he explains the above to a room of French aristocrats is a fine contrast. Adams, from his own sacrifice, knows what he lacks and sees the cause: that he is bound to do other things. The French, not bound and free to do as they please, see only the freedom of status quo in which they bask. The political trajectories of the French and American nations add a poignancy to the scene, as do the frequent cuts back to Abigail maintaining the household in John's absence.

It would be impossible not to mention Mr. Adams without his wife for their relationship is one of the central threads of the series. Their lifelong friendship is inspiring and, in fact, reassuring. A decisive woman, she pushed against his stubbornness when he most needed the shove, she told him when he put to much in his speeches, and she told him when he just needed to shut up. She raised the children and ran the farm. Their witty quarreling is great fun to watch, both in their youth and old age. Of the rest of the cast we must mention two who steal more than a few scenes: Tom Wilkinson brings Benjamin Franklin's jocular sagacity to vivid life, and the philosophical remove of Stephen Dillane's Jefferson draws us into his scenes in the hope he'll reveal something to us.

Adams' reconciliation with Jefferson is a fitting conclusion for the film and their correspondence, potentially awkward to dramatize, is deftly handled. The correspondence of the "north and south poles of the revolution" is most enriching. The conclusions therein are not the designs of untested youths or thinkers at remove from the consequences of their prescriptions, but thought tempered by action, and hope tempered by sacrifice.

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