July 5, 2010
I did something thrilling and patriotic on the long July 4th weekend unrelated to hot dogs or fireworks. Courtesy of HBO On Demand, I watched all seven episodes of "John Adams" in two days. I am far enough removed from American history class to admit my ignorance without embarrassment. Never cared much for all those battles, elections, documents and dates anyway. The general outline was drilled into my head by a series of well-meaning bone-dry teachers. Only later did I learn that Thomas Jefferson was an all-time hottie and political insider trading was alive and well long before the telegraph, let alone the internet. But I knew almost nothing about John Adams. Now I know everything esteemed author David McCullough put forth in his monumental biography which comes to life in this exceptional rendition. I know the history, the backstories and the personal stuff -- especially about Abigail Adams, a smart, spunky pre-feminist (brilliantly interpreted by Laura Linney) who, it was suggested, also reacted to Jefferson's magnetism. Really, she was a saint to put up with John's absences and antics. Their pillow talk advanced the story as no rhetoric could. Linney and Paul Giamatti as Adams led a stunning cast of mostly unfamiliar actors which was good, since I saw them as their characters rather than themselves. Exception: David Morse as George Washington. He does resemble the general but his face has graced too many so-so dramas. Tom Wilkinson makes a wicked Ben Franklin, dallying in an 18th century French hot tub with an aging doyenne. Meryl Streep's daughter Mamie Gummer glows as the wife of Adams' n'er-do-well son Charles (dead at 30) but with a name like Mamie Gummer you'd better be good. Over seven episodes lasting eight hours Adams, the fiery young patriot, developed into a fiery old patriot consumed by ego, tempered by self-pity. Alexander Hamilton was The Joker. Jefferson was Adams' constant foil and sometimes foe; they both die on the same day, July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Soap operatic details provided respite to the hard history: a strain of alcoholism and metal imbalance plagued Adams's sons (except John Quincy). Even rock-solid Abigail could not stem the children's resentment caused by papa's absences. His daughter died of breast cancer after a brutal mastectomy without anesthetic. His cigar habit rotted his teeth and his wigs were just ridiculous. But Adams in 3-D came across as a pacifist who tried really, really hard. I would see it again just for the make-up and set decoration -- some exteriors shot in Colonial Williamsburg. If you get HBO On Demand set aside enough time to watch two episodes at each sitting. The first confuses rather than grips but by episode 3 you'll be hooked. The finale is way Hollywood, but forgiven for all that went before. I think "John Adams" should be part of the middle school curriculum, even the sex scene. After all, John and Abigail were married, fully clothed and had been apart for YEARS! That way, teachers could correct the exaggerations and implement the history as long as they don't mess with Jefferson. He's a hottie.