Thursday, June 25, 2015

HIstory According to Jim, Vol. 1, No. 7

John Adams: The HBO Miniseries

     This is the first part of a two part post between History According to Jim and tomorrow's Tilting at Windmills. As it is John Adams week here on Diffusion, I will focus on the history of the miniseries in this post and the educational value of the series in tomorrow's. For now, let us turn to HBO's miniseries and Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, and an outstanding cast of actors and actresses along with a wonderful production crew that brought John Adams to light for us.

     Personally, I think this is an outstanding historical miniseries. It is not perfect, but you will not find any movie or series that is historically accurate. In fact, you will not find a documentary that gets everything right either. So as I advise my students, you never "learn" history from the screen. You merely give it visual qualities that capture an audience's attention. You use their attention to begin teaching history to them.

     There are many faults with the show. It does deviate from David McCullough's book, John Adams, quite a bit in places. I am not going to delve into the differences as you can find them on Wikipedia or picked them out yourselves while watching. I do not think they detract seriously from the general historical concept that much or in such a way as to seriously distort the past. Unfortunately, history has to take a back seat in film at times in order to accommodate constructing an audience, introducing conflict which is the key element in gaining an audience and keeping it, and production necessities.

    What was great is that the producers were able to capture the conflict of the periods the series covers and let the characters interact with each other in the context of the conflict. Let's face it, John Adams was a man who thrived on conflict. He was at his best at the heart of conflict's maelstrom even if he was vain and impetuous at the same time. When he lacked conflict, he either sought some out or manufactured it.

Paul Giamatti as John Adams
     Maybe John Adams failed to rise to the top as our nation's second president. Considering the two men he was sandwiched between, comparisons are often difficult to avoid. Yet, in many ways, Adams may have been the better man than either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. At the end of his presidency Adams rejected party wishes and worked on the behalf of his nation to avoid a war with France which he felt would not have been to the best wishes of his fellow countrymen. That, my friends, is virtue. We may say what we want about John Adams, but he put his nation first. I daresay we could use men like John Adams today in this political climate.

Jefferson, Adams, Franklin 
     One of the best things about this series is the cast. These are some outstanding actors and actresses filling roles that we historians have visualized for years. Stephen Dillane was simply marvelous as Thomas Jefferson. Tom Wilkinson was perfect as Benjamin Franklin. The scenes with those two and Paul Giamatti as John Adams are the best in the show. You almost wish they would have filmed miniseries for those two men with the same cast.
Laura Linney as Abigail Adams

     Laura Linney as Abigail Adams though was a stroke of genius. We often ignore the role of passion between husband and wife at this time. Both John and Abigail had passion for each other. It may have been in the context of the time, but those two were a match for each other. Giamatti and Linney have some real chemistry in their scenes. The restraint, the deference, and the passion come forth and I think this may be their best acting. Both won major awards for their performance and I think they were well deserved by both.

David Morse as George Washington
     The second best thing about this series is that it also focuses on relationships instead of events. The events are the setting for the character interaction. Instead of letting the events drive the narrative of the show, it clearly lets the characters reveal that their actions where what drove the events and thus this series. Nothing was or is inevitable. People make choices and those choices are what lead to things happening. This series made that clear. These were flesh and blood people making life shaking and ultimately world shaking choices. David Morse in his role as George Washington embodies this quite well, especially during the presidential episodes.

Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson with Giamatti and Linney
    Their relationships with each other often drove those choices. Adams' interactions with delegates in Philadelphia were instrumental in deciding what would happen over time. His actions in Paris were both not so good and great at times. The actions of Ben Franklin were just as important. Later, the conflict between Jefferson and Adams, two men who were friends with each other, would both sunder and repair that friendship. If I had to choose a favorite of the series, I would choose the last episode. I have always been touched by the letters between Adams and Jefferson from 1812 until their deaths on July 4, 1826. If ever two men led intertwined lives, those two did.

     Tomorrow: Showing clips of John Adams to my survey class.

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