Tuesday, March 25, 2008

John Adams

WordPerfect just made a 1 millimeter top margin my default setting for no reason. I notice it does weird things like this from time to time. Oh, there we go, in print preview it gives the regular margin setting. Still, this is very distracting while I’m writing.

I’ve been watching HBO’s John Adams miniseries for the past two weeks. There are a couple of reasons for this. I would be blacklisted from my family for not claiming the first reason to be that my brother-in-law is an extra in a few of the scenes. Dan, I haven’t seen you yet but I’ve been looking. Dan spent weeks going back and forth between Nelson County and Richmond, Va. where much of the series was shot. He chatted with Laura Linney and stood around with Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. If these details are slightly incorrect Dan don’t correct me, I’m trying to live vicariously through you.

I’ve also tuned in because I read the set design has a remarkable authenticity—that the film gets very close to what life was like during the actual time-period. The series depicts numerous instances from 18th century existence; from gnarled old salts straining to make 10” thick rope to the novel horror of early inoculation practices. This is American history that you won’t find on the tour of Colonial Williamsburg. Because the miniseries is based on David McCullough’s biography of Adams, the filmmakers have designed the film to emphasize McCullough’s insistence that the hardship of colonial life showed in every aspect of the physical and intellectual character of the people.

For me, this is an alluring premise. (I can’t help it, I’ve always liked the gory details.) Paul Giamatti’s Adams is constantly sweating, spitting, and stomping around like a runt gelding pissed at his lot. Some people argued Giamatti/Adams as the miscasting blunder of the year, but I’m finding he plays the role with depth and believability. The contrast between a starched and powdered early 19th century presidential portrait of Adams and Giamatti’s cropped and un-wigged head may require a stretch of the imagination, but the power of such a real figure playing one of our most mythologized historical figures is extremely effective. I never fail to be charmed by Giamatti, who can play the underdog like no one since…help me here somebody, I can’t think of anyone else who had a series of underdog roles as diverse as American Splendor (one of my absolute all time favorites) Sideways, and Cinderella Man.

I have to say something about my brother-in-law’s buddy Laura Linney also. Her role as Abigail has finally brought me around to her talent. I always, somewhat snootily, rejected her acting in Mystic River as melodramatic and overplayed, and it was a while before I could open up to this current performance as well. But lately I’ve realized how important facial expression is to the art of acting, and Linney’s expressive mix of joy, relief, and love upon hearing of Cornwallis’s surrender at the end of Sunday night’s episode converted me for good.

The casting of Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin had me worried, but this was also unfounded. To my plebian eye he and Giammatti seem born to act together. I’m not going to pretend I know a great deal about this period of history (although I hope to), but the inter-play between Wilkinson’s popular Ben Franklin and Giamatti’s frank and stammering Adams in the court of Louis XVI is one of the most absorbing features of the series so far. While I have limited knowledge of the customs of late 18th century French aristocracy, I have a feeling the powdered opulence, off-set by yellow rotting teeth, are, at least, more close to the reality than Sophia Coppola’s version.

Word on the street is that there are huge liberties (NPI) taken with the actual historical events, partly due to Adams’ own self-mythologizing and partly due to the old Hollywood practice of turning history into entertainment. I have mixed feelings about this, I mean, Shakespeare anybody? I think it’s important to take these things for what they are intended, recognizing the flaws but appreciating the highpoints—as long as there are any highpoints. If at some point I want the real scoop on Adams I won’t consider watching a marathon session of this miniseries, I’ll turn to the scholars, but on Sunday night with a new week looming I’m alright indulging in this kind of historical escapism.

HBO seems ever to be on a roll. Ending what, to my mind, was the best police drama/city politics drama/drug culture drama and hell, all around drama drama of all time, The Wire, they have followed up with an engaging, if not a wee bit biased, (okay way biased), historical drama. As Sunday’s episode ends, we watched Adams writhing around in delirium as his beloved republic broke loose from the empire, too sick to reap any moral reward for his efforts. The authenticity of the scene goes far toward off-setting any historical inaccuracies, so this week I’ll be parked on the couch once again waiting to be lied to and enjoying every moment.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, Dan and I have yet to see any of the series so we don't know if he is languishing on the cutting room floor or actually sidled into the background. But what a great write-up! I wish you could replace a number of our so-called "Critics" on the art/tv/movie scene. linser

IM said...

thanks lindser, John Adams is back from France this week, it was almost all set in France last week, so there will be more chances for a Dan sighting this week. I have to confess, I haven't seen the first half hour or so because I was wrong about the time so he may be in there too. Couldn't be a critic, not mean enough.

hobgoblin said...

You can't criticize Laura Linney! See The Savages--she holds her own with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, not an easy task.

IM said...

hobgoblin, I was so wrong about Linney. Feels good to admit it. And I WILL see the Savages.

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Emily Barton said...

This is enough to make me (very slightly) wish we had cable and HBO. But, I suppose I can always check it out on DVD.

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