The Forgotten Founder

By Rob Patterson

History is often ill served by the visual media of film and television, and much to the detriment of our history-challenged populace. One of the most telling examples I can think of is the hit movie Titanic in which the highly dramatic facts of the real story were ignored in favor of a silly fictional love tale that obviously connected with the public big time. But I can’t help but think that it would have been a better movie if just some of the reality of the oceanic tragedy had been threaded into the fluffy fable.

But sometimes the media does get it right, as with HBO’s John Adams. Adams is the forgotten man among our founding fathers. And the cable mini-series does a fine job of showing why he should be remembered and maybe even why he isn’t. Plus it portrays a truly powerful love story to boot.

It’s compelling television with some surprising aspects, the major one being Paul Giamatti’s potent portrayal of Adams. Rather than say that he brings gravitas to the role—a quality often missing from historically-based docudramas, most notably on Showtime’s downright silly The Tudors, which starts up season two this spring—what I find most compelling about Giamatti as Adams is the humanness he brings to the affair. There are times when he has the gravitas that made a number of our founding fathers such great figures. At other moments he shows us an Adams who must confront his weaknesses and doubts. That is what makes a historical figure tangible to us in the 21st century, as being human is one thing that doesn’t change all that much over the ages. And as a tale of an common man with uncommon and noble principles, intelligence and heart, John Adams does a fine job of reminding us what is great about the notion of America and the best of the American character.

John Adams is also a powerful love story, which doesn’t mean it is sexy and racy, which in these sometimes-shallow times is what passes for love in our popular entertainment. Giamatti and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams are a couple who both feel the conflicts that arise from the often contradictory duties people have to their marriage and family and then to their life outside of that. And they have an ongoing and spirited discourse on that that makes them both stronger within and outside of the marriage. It’s love as a long-term and abiding devotion that maintains itself by both parties participating in a genuine dynamic communication.

The mini-series is based on David McCullough’s best-selling biography of Adams, and executive producer Tom Hanks has already shown his fealty to the drama of true history with Saving Private Ryan. And John Adams doesn’t just get the people right but also the mise en scene as well.

So often history is shown in film and television works in cleaned-up and glossy ways that don’t truly reflect the tenor of the times. John Adams doesn’t sweep away the grittiness and primitive state of American in its infancy, and does an especially pointed job of showing the sophistication of the French elite that Adams and Benjamin Franklin have to deal with (in far different ways) as the façade it was. What makes this dramatic work feel real is that it shows what real life was in the era of our American Revolution, all the way down to Adams being bled as a “cure” for illness.

And it also resonates so fully today by portraying historical heroes like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Adams and others as people with eccentricities, egos, tics, dysfunctions and other eternal characteristics of humans that are eternal. The debate over whether the colonies should declare independence is shown as not just one of principles but also self-interest and affected if not driven by the personalities of those involved. Or in short, it shows the human element that is as much a part of history as ideas, power, economics and other forces at play.

John Adams is well worth seeking out if you don’t have HBO once it appears on DVD. No filmed drama ever trumps a great book in my view, which is why I will make sure I also read McCullough’s biography in the not too distant future. But in an age where passive consumption of entertainment is fast outpacing the active involvement of reading, it’s reassuring that quality history can be made into compelling television without sacrificing its integrity and heart. Film and television can still be both truly educational and entertaining in an era fraught with dumbed-down Weapons of Mass Distraction. Imagine how much better our culture might be if more works like John Adams were out there for the public to view.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2008

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