Friday, February 06, 2009

Must Watch Friday - John Adams

Jenna posted not long ago about her new fascination with HBO, and I second it! I don't actually watch a lot of tv but HBO series grab my attention big time.

So when HBO Canada broadcast John Adams, I kicked my dvr into gear and taped all the episodes.

I will admit I was riveted. An unlikely cast makes up the ensemble - Paul Giamatti is Adams, Laura Linney plays his wife Abigail, Stephen Dillane is Thomas Jefferson and Rufus Sewell plays the opportunistic Hamilton. It's rounded out by David Morse as Washington (tall as a barn door), Sarah Polley as "Nabby" Adams and Tom Wilkinson as a crusty, shrewd Benjamin Franklin.

It is based on the biography by David McCullough - that won a Pulitzer Prize. With Tom Hanks on board as executive producer, there was no doubt it was going to be good. So good that it went on to win several awards.

The series is made up of seven episodes, the first one titled "Join or Die" and begins just before the official beginning of the American Revolution. It sees John join the newly formed Continental Congress and his departure for Philadelphia. It then follows his journey through the beginning of the war, the Declaration of Independence, his ambassadorial visit to France and then to the Netherlands. It continues through his return to the US, his impotent position as Vice President under Washington, and an ill-fated Presidency with Thomas Jefferson as his second. It follows him through his defeat in the election, his return to Peacefield, and how he lived out the rest of his days.

The series also illuminates his personal relationships which more often than not suffered greatly because of his political career. He was at his best when his wife was by his side...she was his greatest advisor and their love story is considered one of the greatest in American history. But there were long stretches where he was absent from the family - truly, the hero of the revolution was not just Adams but the strong, wise figure of Abigail. He was impassioned, didn't know how not to speak his mind really, which at times was a blessing or a curse. At times it rallied the people together, and at other times it alienated sides when he desperately needed to negotiate for votes. Especially during his presidency, he stood by his guns, and it cost him his career. But even then, he acknowledged that he had done what he had set out to do and if this was the result then he would live with it.

But that uncompromising streak alienated those he loved. His son Charles suffered, longing for a father's attention and never getting it, not even after his death. While Abigail grieved, Adams proclaimed he could not forgive Charles. When his own assistant, Col. Smith, married his daughter Nabby, he refused to use his name to secure a position for his son in law. In fact he went so far as to make it impossible for Smith to remain with the family and Smith went west, leaving Nabby and children behind. Thomas and John Quincey were sent to the Netherlands because it was expected and it was their duty. Adams could be a hard man, and at those moments I did not like him very much.

I do believe the intensity of his career took its toll, because the John I wanted to see happened after his presidency was over, in the final episode. Here it was plain he loved his wife, loved his children, and was proud of them. Nabby's story in particular is heart wrenching, and I was pleased that a man so sure of being right all the time was able to take steps to mend fences with Jefferson (who probably didn't deserve it). Their friendship withstood political splits and personal differences, and it is a bit creepy and neat to realize they died on the same day. (Note: I actually found Stephen Dillane fairly sexy in this. He had this quiet charm that was magnetic.)

A very well done mini series with a different perspective on the revolution and following years.

Do you have a favourite historical docu-drama?

Donna's latest release is The Rancher's Runaway Princess, out this month in Australia and New Zealand!


  1. I adored the JOhn Adams docu drama when it was on over here. They put it on a really stupid time (5 pm on a Saturday). I had heard wonderful things and it was wonderful. JA is one of my big heroes -- imho he is one of the reasons why the Revolution succeeded in the way it did. He was not an easy man, and his relationship with Jefferson is truly interesting.
    I had worried that they would ruin the book. But the actors were brilliant. Paul Gambatti was in Sideways, and Laura Linley is now one of these actresses that I watch out for as her performances are quality.

  2. More years ago than I care to remember, I read Those Who Love by Irving Stone, which was the story of John Adams and his wife.

    I've forgotten most of it, but the sense of greatness has stayed with me. I'm sorry I missed the TV series.