Friday, October 31, 2008

Some Notes on “John Adams”

Having watched HBO‘s “John Adams“ twice now, I have these observations to make on the production.

First, it was a conscientious, honest within their lights docudrama by Tom Hanks and his co-producers, with casting, directing, acting, and other cinematographic qualities rarely equaled in other contemporary movies, whether made for TV or for the big screen. Its paramount value, however, is that it approached the origins of the American Revolution in terms of dramatizing the fundamental reasons why it happened through the vehicle of John Adams’ thoughts and political career.

It was a brilliant stroke of storytelling to begin it with Adams’ defense of British Captain Preston and his men in court after the Boston Massacre in 1770, and not with Adams’ life before that episode, because it was then that Adams’ character was delineated and subsequently built and expanded upon throughout the rest of the series. He was introduced as a mature, adult thinker with a core set of values and it was shown throughout the story what he did about them.

But, the problem with docudramas is that they are governed by the same artistic philosophy as governs fiction, in that a director of a docudrama must also exercise Ayn Rand’s maxim of an artist’s adhering to a “selective recreation of reality according to his metaphysical value judgments.” Much was left out of Adams’ life, and much included that was distracting or skewed. The tar-and-feathering of the Boston port officer in Part I, although violently realistic and informative (too realistic, for that matter), was of less importance vis-à-vis the idea of the Revolution than the subsequent Boston Tea Party, which was not shown but merely reported in dialogue.

And, in Part 7, which depicted the death of Abigail Adams, we are left with the impression that she died still bearing an animus for Thomas Jefferson (for his alleged and unresolved cabal in the story against Adams while he was president) and that John Adams had not yet renewed his friendship and correspondence with Jefferson, when in fact both of the Adamses had been by that time, at the suggestion of Dr. Rush, corresponding in friendship with him for years.

Also in Part 7, John Trumbull, the painter, was characterized as a witless, posturing cretin left stammering in reply to Adams’ objections to his masterwork, the Declaration of Independence, neither man able to see the value of the painting’s tableau as a dramatic symbol of an epochal event. I do not know what Adams’ actual evaluation of the painting was, but Trumbull was a professional painter and portrait artist and he surely would have known what he had created, and been able to defend his work in answer to Adams’ petty, pedantic objections to the painting, as was shown in the scene.

In fact, that particular scene could be taken as the summation of the whole series, with Adams volubly, sarcastically, and abusively protesting the apotheoses of the event and of the men who signed the Declaration in 1776 by Trumbull, as an expression of the naturalistic premises of the director and producers of the series, as opposed to their absent Romantic ones. Why go to the trouble of shooting that scene, unless it was with the intention of detracting from the significance of the event and compromising the stature of the Declaration‘s signers?

Stephen Dillane’s portrayal of Jefferson was the most troubling. Having read much of Jefferson’s writings and life, I could not purchase the actor’s portrayal of Jefferson as a dreamy, distant, evasive man driven by ulterior motives, when in fact, after the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765-66, he abandoned his original goal of becoming a successful, contented planter/lawyer and became passionately committed to liberty for the rest of his life.

Paul Giamatti’s John Adams was earthy and realistic -- in many instances overly so -- but his performance was more than compensated by his articulate delivery of Adams’ political thinking and arguments. One of the best episodes was Adams’ introduction by Benjamin Franklin to the effete and patronizing French court and aristocracy. Franklin’s portrayal, however, was offensively incredible. Certainly Franklin was a bon vivant and womanizer in London and Paris, but in fact, he was also a germinal political thinker besides an inventor, but the series’ picture of him was that he was a preoccupied, opportunistic, pragmatic hedonist too reminiscent of a non-intellectual Bill Clinton (excuse the redundancy).

Laura Linney’s Abigail Adams was certainly credible and attractive, but the series focused too much on her purported influence on her husband John’s career. That influence relied heavily on dialogue between the characters, but was presented as fact. “Facts are stubborn things,” Adams says during the Boston Massacre trial, but what Abigail and John Adams actually said to each other at any point in their lives is largely unrecorded and so cannot be facts presented as such. This is one of the chief weaknesses of a docudrama, no matter how exquisitely realistic it is made or how closely it hovers on the shore of truth.

Nevertheless, the repartee between John and Abigail was far above what passes for intelligent dialogue on TV or in most movies.

The actor who played George Washington was too silently wooden and too reserved. Washington in fact could curse like a sailor when provoked (as he did often during the French and Indian War and the Revolution), but was also able to express his political views with clarity and precision. The producers and director missed an opportunity to dramatize his refusal to be made a monarch, an action John Adams would have applauded and an event that would have meshed perfectly with the series‘ theme. Finally, among other incongruities, the actor who played George the Third in the scene in which Adams is received by the monarch as the first American ambassador to Great Britain, was far too young, when by that time George would have been middle-aged (and taller). In that scene, he was more like a petulant, spoiled teenager having difficulty organizing his thoughts.

In summary, while I enjoyed “John Adams” enough to watch it twice, and will probably again, the series left a great deal to be desired, and a slightly bad taste in my mouth. I had nearly the same reaction to it as I had when I first saw David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” decades ago: What potential there is in filmmaking! What great stories could be told in the hands of able directors and screenwriters, if only they had the material! It was that film, after all, which convinced me that I must be a novelist. And the story that kept coming to mind as I watched the docudrama “John Adams” was the novel “Sparrowhawk,” which, as a series or as a three-part feature film (à la “Harry Potter” or “Lord of the Rings”), would have done far greater justice to the Founders and the ideas that animated them and to the pre-Revolutionary period than any film produced in the past.

I know for a fact that many people who have read “Sparrowhawk” not only esteem the story, but at this moment know or have a glimmering idea of how much has been lost since Adams’ and Jefferson’s time, and how much must be regained before completing the Revolution, and view with dread or disgust the current contest for the presidency of this country.

Such readers have proven Aristotle’s observation that fiction is more important than history, because it shows men and events as they might and ought to be, rather than how they supposedly “really” were.


Ryan said...

I think most of your commentary is spot on Ed. I too noticed the dreaminess they portrayed Jefferson to have. And most of the portrayal of Franklin was a characture. But by far the worst was the actor who portrayed Washington. This man, who's name I forget at the moment, usually plays secondary roles in action type movies. Although he might have resembled Washington's dollar bill picture, he was indeed wooden and painful to watch. I kept wondering if they put some device in his mouth to altar the appearance because that wasn't how he usually talks or looks. Every time he came on, I wanted to look away and plug my ears. For me, the best Washington portrayal I've seen is by Barry Bostwick in the CBS mini-series on Washington.

I would love to see Sparrowhawk portrayed on film. Of course, you Ed would have to have a critical say in the production so as not to butcher it. It would be highly interesting to hear your thoughts on how you see it as a film.

Galileo Blogs said...

I share many of your criticisms of the series.

On the positive side, I absolutely relished the opening sequence of each episode. I watched it over again many times -- the billowing Revolutionary flags and the inspiring music. I especially liked how the music peaked just as a particularly inspiring flag and phrase appeared on the screen.

I do not remember that particular phrase, but those flag images made the Revolution so real and noble to me.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

>On the positive side, I absolutely relished the opening sequence of each episode.

I responded in much the same way; there was something absolutely uplifting in those opens. I wonder who did the work.

The Rush Blog said...

JOHN ADAMS was a drama based upon history . . . not a documentary. What the hell did you expect?

Why do people expect historical drama to be an exact re-creation of what really happened in history? When did we get so damn petty?

When will people GROW UP and realize that any history presented in dramatic form WILL NOT BE COMPLETELY ACCURATE. Drama always comes before fact. Get used to it.

Michael Smith said...

When will people GROW UP and realize that any history presented in dramatic form WILL NOT BE COMPLETELY ACCURATE. Drama always comes before fact. Get used to it.

I find the hostility of your comments quite revealing. It would seem that what you resent is the very notion of taking ideas seriously -- of caring enough about them to object when they or the men who foumulated and were guided by them are misrepresented, mischaracterized or simply omitted.

Cynicism as the essence of maturity -- that's pragmatism at work. Thus, even as you eschew ideas your attitude is inexorably shaped by one. Such is the power of philosophy.

Anonymous said...

The review was just a collection of developed notes I took as I watched the series the second time. Could have said much more about its positive and negative aspects. Might write a full length review some time in the future. But, it is astounding that the production had some fealty to the ideas of the Revolution; not perfectly true to them, but acceptable for the time being....

I agree with Nick that the opening credits sequence, with the flags "evolving" into the one we know today, is a riveting device. And, as I mentioned above, I did not intend to write a full-length, comprehensive review of the series, just highlight some of its successes and failings.

One minor disappointment was the repeated preparation for a battle scene (Washington surrounding the British in Boston with the Ticonderoga guns, Bunker Hill itself, and other events) and then nothing happening.

Also, I might have noted this in the review, but I'm gather that, in the majority of scenes, most of the dialogue between John and Abigail Adams was adapted from the correspondence between them. Also, some of Franklin's lines in France were adapted from things he said later during and after the Constitutional Convention.

Rush: I have always had a prejudice against docudramas and dramatized biographies, chiefly because most modern screenwriters connected with them did not know how to essentialize a historic person's character and actions, and still don't. But, I must give the people who worked on this screenplay fair marks for their efforts. Not high marks, but fair marks, which are better than none, which is remarkable, because I am fairly knowledgeable of the period and of the men, having been immersed in the time for many, many years to write Sparrowhawk.

Ed Cline

Anonymous said...

Ryan: The actor who played Washington was the same one who played opposite Tom Hanks in "The Green Mile," as one of the death row prison guards. Haven't had time to look up his name. He was good in that minor role, but not for a major one, such as playing Washington. There is a distinct, legitimate difference between "stars" and "character" or "supporting" actors. But, the studio system that invented and sustained that distinction is dead, and now many character actors think they can jump from that level to the star level. However, I don't think the Washington actor had any real choice in the matter after the casting office called. The actor hasn't been in anything that I know of since "The Green Mile."

Also, I mentioned how I'd like to see Sparrowhawk produced in the review. And, for all the shortcomings I see in "John Adams," I'd nominate its director, Tom Hooper, to direct a production of my series. The screenplay could practically write itself, since it is a plotted story and could not be ripped apart by a script committee. That is, you couldn't tell Jack Frake's story without telling Hugh Kenrick's. In short, no screenwriter could "disintegrate" an integrated plot that is Sparrowhawk's.

Ed Cline

Ed Cline

Andrew Elstner said...

I've said it before, and I'll happily say it again: I'd love to see the Sparrowhawk series adapted to film. The trilogy format would work well, though I fear the production levels in reality will never compare to the ones in my mind.
For the time being, I'm satisfied to help generate interest in the series, recommending it to anyone who'll listen.
And speaking of trilogies, as far as I understand it, the adaptation of "Atlas Shrugged" to the big screen has all but completely stalled out, no?