Monday, March 17, 2008

The JOHN ADAMS Experience

Having just invoked Abigail Adams in my last post, it should go without saying that the HBO broadcast of the first two episodes of John Adams last night had a strong and positive effect on me. I feel it is important to say this, because, prior to beginning the first episode, I had been exposed to a fair amount of "professional criticism" directed at both the general product and the specific lead performance by Paul Giamatti. As far as I am concerned, those critics missed the point; and I think that the overt enthusiasm exhibited by David McCullough for the entire project in the making-of preview far outweighs the opinions of those who may be good critics of television without necessarily having much appreciation for the specific content. It is no mean feat to translate a history book, even one with a Pulitzer Prize to its name, into television and make such a clear positive impression on the author at the same time. Once again HBO has demonstrated that they can make non-fiction as compelling as good fiction; and, if they did not push the right buttons to impress the television critics, then so much the worse for those critics!

I have one other negative perspective to get out of the way before dwelling on the positives. While the credits were rolling between the two parts that were broadcast last night, I remarked to my wife, "This is the anti-Ken Burns." As I have previously written, I agree with Chalmers Johnson when it comes to the element of narcissism in Burns' work. If that stuff really does get more people to give generously to their PBS stations (which I am inclined to doubt since, in this period of economic crisis, pledge weeks seem to be getting longer and longer), then they have every right to do what works; but I have every right to change my channel over to HBO! There is only so much of Burns' self-indulgent twaddle that I can take; and that "so much" usually comes to much less than fifteen minutes! McCullough, on the other hand, does not write self-indulgent twaddle; and HBO seems to have assembled the perfect team to keep that twaddle from infecting their treatment of McCullough's text.

On the positive side I feel I should begin by writing those few words in praise of Paul Giamatti than no one else seems to have recorded. I suspect that many were influenced by all those nebbishy roles in which Giamatti has been typecast for at least a decade. He sometimes would come across as early Woody Allen taken over by the Dark Side of the Force, just not quite as ridiculous as Rick Moranis' portrayal of Dark Helmet for Mel Brooks. The problem is that we do not like to see our principal Founding Fathers as nebbishes, even if Adams was the sort of man who just was never that all comfortable in his own skin. He had a brilliant mind; but, when it came to what Erving Goffman called "the presentation of self in everyday life," he was a complete and utter klutz. The good news was that he had a strong bond to his wife who labored long and hard to get him over his social impediments and, for the most part, succeeded. We see this very early in Part 1, and it should inform us as the longer scale of this history unfolds.

This is not all we see in Part 1. The first major episode of HBO's version of the narrative concerns the trial of the British soldiers (the officer and those under his command) for the deaths of civilians in the Boston Massacre. Adams argued for the defense of the British in this trial; and he presents a case of air-tight logic (thereby risking his personal standing with fellow citizens of Boston just beginning to embrace the cause of independence, primarily due to the rhetoric of his cousin Sam). The summation of the prosecution, on the other hand, basically asks the jury to decide on the criteria of good and evil, rather on the basis of evidence and testimony. The opposition of these two tactics of argumentation should ring a bell with just about anyone who has been following the activities of the Bush Administration, particularly in the wake of 9/11! I have no idea whether or not McCullough intended this opposition to be so important, but I think he wanted us to remember that one of our greatest patriots was a man who recognized that our country would rise or fall on the basis of its ability to honor the obligation to be a society of laws. HBO deserves credit for not shying away from this particular message.

Similarly, Part 2 is important for the way in which it reveals the deep disagreements that had to be resolved before the approval of the Declaration of Independence. In that respect perhaps the most important actor was Zeljko Ivanek, who used to be Ed Danvers on Homicide and appears to have crossed the Mason-Dixon line to portray John Dickinson, one of the representatives of the Province of Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress. As leader of the delegation, Dickinson argued passionately for reconciliation instead of revolution; and his arguments with Adams often substituted ad hominem attacks for logic. Nevertheless, he respected Adams' argument that the Declaration of Independence needed to be passed without opposition. As a result, he abstained from the final vote, allowing Benjamin Franklin to represent Pennsylvania in support of the Declaration. Again, the reflection into a present in which political debate has been virtually overwhelmed by the ad hominem should encourage us all to reflect on our origins.

I suppose this also illustrates how even the actors we know best have succeeded in losing themselves in the characters they are portraying. This was easier for some than for others. Franklin was so flamboyant that he was practically an actor already, and Tom Wilkinson had no trouble figuring out just how far over the top he could take his portrayal. However, going back to my previous acknowledgment, the actress who really wins us all over is Laura Linney. So much of what any of us know about John Adams emerges from the voluminous correspondence he conducted with his wife, particularly when he was serving in the Continental Congress leaving her to run the family farm in Quincy (close enough to Boston to afford a distant view of the Battle of Bunker Hill). Historians thus have a very rich picture of Abigail, and Linney seems to have assimilated all of that richness. When we examine the roles she has played in her resume, we cannot help but be impressed by the diversity of character types; but I hope that this one will stand out in the broad view of her career for its sensitivity to historical record well matched to its solid grounding in acting technique.

One last thought has to do with a sort of sub-conscious sense of continuity that sets in when one follows all these projects that HBO deploys. The result is that the different works "talk to each other" across the distances of both time and space. This struck me during the scene in which Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence is being reviewed by Adams and Franklin. This scene reminds us that Franklin was a newspaperman early in his life; and, even if it was accidental, the whole tone of the scene became a reflection on all of those editing conversations that we had heard in the Baltimore Sun scenes of The Wire! This is not to say that Franklin was channeling Gus Haynes but that the scene reminded us that what is left of today's newspaper culture that still values every word in print was already alive and well in the culture that led to our country's independence.

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