John Adams, a tubby, opinionated, stubborn man redeemed by his wonderful full-sharing marriage to Abigail, was the second president of the United States. He was not an easy man to love but he raised a son, John Quincy, who also became a president of the United States. (Another died alcoholic and repudiated.) John was salt to Thomas Jefferson’s pepper in the great stew that finally became our country.
The HBO series that recounts this story is based on the biography by David McCulloch and even at the distance of several levels of translation and interpretation, it is David McCulloch’s marriage and personality that finally gleams through that early history. McCulloch is everything Adams wasn’t (except for the quality of mind): handsome, graceful, confident, well-rooted and informed, a people’s man and yet somehow aristocratic, and, like Adams, very very well-married.
It is a credit to all concerned, especially the actors, that the people McCulloch researched and wrote about become so vivid and understandable, even the barely suppressed monarchists like Hamilton. But the episode in which the Adamses arrive at the president’s residence, newly and barely built and not yet white, a big drafty awkward barn with no amenities except inadequate fireplaces and a very large slave population, is the scene where we are really faced with how fragile a dream the whole thing was in the earliest days. Abigail, as embodied by Laura Linney, looks at the tangle of felled trees and mud traversed every which way by laboring black people in rags, and asks -- on our behalf -- “Can anything good come out of a capitol built by slaves?”
People accustomed to explosions and morphing sci-fi monsters will find this a very boring movie full of talking heads. The more sophisticated will recognize the roots of everything we struggle with now, even Rush Limbaugh. In those days the talk was not on the radio, but on the streets, and the blogs were hand-printed broadsides and pamphlets, no less intemperate than today’s flame wars. Rumsfield and Cheney are there in the person of imperial Madison and perhaps the Kennedy of the times was Jefferson: idealistic, improvident, and eloquent.
John Adams was no Obama. “Rotund,” “hermaphroditic,” fiery and obdurate, we can barely understand him. I’m not sure he has a modern equivalent -- maybe Jimmy Carter, a bit. The piety and marriage seem similar. Laura Linney would make an excellent Rosalyn Carter but never at all a Pat Nixon. Lady Bird? Hmmm. It fun to play at personalities this way, and this cast is QUITE the equal of the Masterpiece Theatre English, even though few of them are familiar to us. Stephen Dillane, for instance, I last saw as a bad guy bamboozled by Robert Redford in “The Spy Game.” He could do a very insightful version of Rumsfeld, a sexy guy lost in theory.
To compensate and emphasize the constant back-and-forth of multi-syllabic argument, the camera in this movie is on the move, literally, drifting past, leaving a talking head at the edge of the frame facing out of it, tilting, pulling back to an upper corner of the “room,” peering through things and around things, leaving speakers down in one corner, even as the people glance slantwise, avert gazes to the floor, suddenly look up to check a reaction. Most of the serious conversations between John and his wife are in bed -- naked when they are young, nightgowned in later years -- the camera is as close to their faces as they are to each other, gazing into each other’s eyes, watching each other’s lips, turning away, pressing together. The sheer intimacy and trust they convey makes the sexual writhing we are used to seem childish.
Awards for this mini-series are multitudinous -- check them out on imdb.com. So much of the work is subtle and genuine even though the tasks were pretty daunting: imagine making someone look like George Washington! (Speaking of likenesses, I was pretty impressed by the inclusion of the sculptor Houdon, who became a special favorite of Jefferson’s and Franklin’s. I loved the final gimmick of Adams dying with a bust of Jefferson in the background while Jefferson was dying with a bust of Adams in the background. These are familiar sculptures, as were the paintings. The person who replicated them know what he, she or they were doing.
This is a director’s version of a script writer working from a book written by an historian working from letters written by the Adamses and others. It is amazing that so much seems absolutely trustworthy. And yet what keeps shining through is the happy marriage of David McCulloch, his love of his country, and his respect for famous men while never letting them off the hook of responsibility for their actions. McCulloch is a man of irenic temperament writing about a man who could be righteously rigid enough to disown his son and stingily scrupulous enough to deny a helping hand to his son-in-law, and yet we don’t feel the dissonance of a happy man writing grim tales.
Much of our empathy comes from the remarkable performance of Paul Giamatti, who has previously starred in such films as “Thunderpants” and “The Haunted World of El SuperBeasto.” (About the current ruler of Venezuela?) John Adams is clearly Giamatti’s role of a lifetime and he was certainly up to it. He has not lacked for work in the past and I don’t think he will in the future either.
But my mind keeps returning to David McCulloch, that prince of a fellow with the beautiful wife and daughters, working away on an old manual typewriter with two fingers of each hand. He built himself a little house in the woods with a gate whose posts once marked the maximum height of visitors who would be welcome. Short ones. Children. He’s been a host for the Smithsonian for many of their shows and is at home on the streets greeting citizens in a most un-ivory tower way. “It’s wonderful,” he exclaims. “Everyone says hello to me!”
“Daaaad,” remonstrates his grown daughter, “You always say hello to them first!” And the camera catches him at it. “Hello, I’m David McCulloch,” he says to a man.
“Oh, hello! I have your book in my car this very minute!” Would that everyone in America did. They could at least watch the DVD.