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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Review: Beldar's watching, and highly recommends, "John Adams"

As I age, I become more sentimental, and about more things. One topic of my sentimentality is American history generally, and the American Revolution and the American Civil War especially.

Thus, I identified completely last summer when reading this post by Ann Althouse, who described listening to an audio-book version of Paul Johnson's George Washington: The Founding Father while she walked through lower Manhattan. She would have been close, I think, to Fraunces Tavern, the still-standing inn where in December 1783 Washington famously bid a fond and tearful farewell to his officers of the Continental Army. She had just reached this passage in the audio-book as she was crossing Lafayette Street:

In London, George III questioned the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now he had won the war. "Oh," said West, "they say he will return to his farm." "If he does that," said the king, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

Prof. Althouse wrote that upon hearing these lines, she broke down and cried. Cynics might wonder: Why would a law professor find herself weeping in public, even while walking historic ground, even while listening to a well-written history? But what I wonder is: How could any well-educated and reasonably self-aware adult American in those circumstances not do so?

Some few months earlier, a few dozens of miles up the Hudson at Newburgh, Washington had thought to quell a potential mutiny among those officers — who were upset at rumors that the Congress would not make good its promises of pay — by reading them a letter he'd received from a Congressman detailing the young country's financial woes. A few halting sentences in, he stopped abruptly, and he reached into his pocket to remove a pair of eyeglasses.

Noting their surprise — Washington was a man who was particular about his appearance, and few of them had known that he ever wore reading glasses — he asked this of them: "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles? For I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."

In that instant, the possible insurrection was over. And although I've read or heard it dozens of times, in a half-dozen Washington biographical books and movies and many other sources, I still cannot re-read that line without tearing up, for the same reasons Prof. Althouse did.


If you are similarly sentimental about our Founding Fathers, then you will need a box of tissues at hand when you watch HBO Films' and executive producer Tom Hanks' latest mini-series, "John Adams," drawn in large measure from David McCullough's fabulous 2001 bestseller of the same name. But I urge you to watch it even if you're skeptical, clear- and dry-eyed when it comes to matters historic.

Much of the book's success came from its skill in placing Adams within a detailed, vivid, and highly accessible human context among other great historic figures — especially Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson — who were, by and large, far less quirky and far easier to lionize into legends. McCullough, and now this mini-series, demonstrate how Adams, too, was an essential ingredient to that extraordinary mix of complementary, contradictory personalities and talents — often a work-horse surrounded by show-horses, a proud man aware of his own tendencies to annoy, a republican who was yet quite aware of the essential needs of strong leadership (and sometimes overfond of it). He's shown as a gentleman farmer who can relish teaching young John Quincy the utter necessity and joy of going elbow-deep while hand-mixing the contents of the manure-cart, and yet who immediately thereafter, upon hearing the boy's stated desire to become a farmer, firmly announces that it's to be the schoolbooks and "then the law" for the lad. (Some of you will see this — manure-spreading and lawyering — as entirely uncontradictory, just not in the same way Adams himself would have.)

The highlight of the first installment was Adams' 1770 defense of the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre — a historical episode dear to all, and especially all lawyers, who (like Adams) believe that the rights to effective assistance of counsel and trial by jury are essential components of the Rule of Law. What blogging lawyer can fail to thrill as Adams leans into the jury box to argue: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." We can perhaps forgive, despite the stubbornness of facts, the artistic license through which the mini-series ignores that two of Adams' eight clients (those who'd admittedly fired directly into the crowd) were not (as depicted here) acquitted, but convicted by the jury of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Defending them was still a bold undertaking, and a largely successful one.

Even only one-quarter through, this mini-series has already proven itself sufficiently exceptional that I've decided to buy the Blu-Ray high-def DVD in due course to add to my small and carefully selected video library. Just now, my TiVo is paused — from the moment when I was inspired to write this post — at a visually arresting image in Episode 2. It's during a July 1776 thunderstorm in Philadelphia, and it features a soberly gray- and brown-clad Adams and Franklin, immersed in earnest and fateful conversation, while seated on a bench in a gray hallway, beneath a long hat-rack upon which seven black, gray, and brown tri-cornered hats have been hung (equally spaced but randomly rotated) to drip dry.

Be assured that in addition to a compelling and true tale to tell, the mini-series offers superb historical production values (think "Saving Private Ryan, albeit thus far less bloody) and terrific, often-surprising acting. I had high expectations for Paul Giamatti in the title role and Laura Linney as the incomparable Abigail — like McCullough's book, this series is secondarily but not incidentally a great, true American love story — but I've been surprised and greatly tickled so far by understated yet compelling performances by David Morse as Washington and, especially, Stephen Dillane as Jefferson.

Highly recommended.

Posted by Beldar at 07:41 AM in Books, Film/TV/Stage | Permalink


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(1) chuck made the following comment | Mar 18, 2008 4:09:55 PM | Permalink

Beldar-thanks for reaffirming that I'm not crazy; my reaction EACH AND EVERY TIME I read Washington's comment at the New Windsor Cantonment about his spectacles and "going blind" is the same: tearing up. God has truly blessed America with men like the founding fathers. Thanks for a super blog. cheerio! chuck

(2) EHeavenlyGads made the following comment | Mar 18, 2008 7:27:35 PM | Permalink

An OUTSTANDING recommendation, Beldar! Did a TIVO search this morning and have watched Part 1 and 2 (which is on hold long enough for me to say thanks).

Many, many thanks.

(3) Mike Austin made the following comment | Mar 19, 2008 8:11:16 AM | Permalink

Dear Beldar:

I teach 8th grade American History. As I age---I am 54---I find myself ever more in love with the beginnings of our Republic and the men who founded it. I remember well that passage of Johnson’s biography of Washington, and assigned the book to the more precocious of my students.

There is no getting over a comparison of those men to our own. We once produced giants. Now we rouse ourselves only to bring forth syphilitic midgets.

(4) chuckR made the following comment | Mar 19, 2008 4:07:11 PM | Permalink

Mike - That last comment is a little harsh. I do agree that God granted us special Providence in who our founders were. It occurs to me - which of our Presidents would have accepted the mantle of King? In my lifetime - starting with Truman, I think it would be Johnson, but only if offered at the beginning of his term, not the end.

(5) Deborah made the following comment | Mar 19, 2008 4:12:04 PM | Permalink

I read "Those Who Love" by Irving Stone in 1965. Pretty heady stuff for a 13-year-old. I've been in love with John Adams ever since. I need to get David McCullough's book. Maybe the movie will show up on DVD before long.

(6) Kathryn made the following comment | Mar 19, 2008 7:23:12 PM | Permalink

Thanks for this post. I've seen the trailers but have been suspicious because of it being an HBO production. I also read that David McCullough is delighted with it.

Age has rendered me much more sentimental and respectful of our History too. And deeply thankful for those brave, brilliant, and truly amazing men.

(7) El Jefe Maximo made the following comment | Mar 20, 2008 1:38:59 PM | Permalink

If you're interested in the Revolution, have a look sometime at Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, on the New Jersey campaign of 1776 which I reviewed on my own blog here.

Richard M. Ketchum's The Winter Soldiers (not Kerry's but Washington's, on the Trenton and Princeton campaign is very good. For those prefering novels, but interested in the period, one could do much worse than Jeffrey Shaara's Rise to Rebellion which is particularly good, and its sequel

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