This holiday season, Ann and I watched the John Adams miniseries on DVD. Coming on the heels of having read Paine’s Common Sense and some discussion about humanizing historical characters, it was a bit of a revelation. Following Adams and his wife through more than fifty years of the early history of the United States, and including a fascinating look at, among others, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, this is as moving and sweeping a historical drama as I have yet seen.
At the core of the movie is the relationship between Adams and his wife Abigail. Watching not just the trials and triumphs of a country but a marriage over such a span was an emotional experience. The movie is not just about the formation of a country but the nature of mortality.
Paul Giamatti as Adams makes the man come alive in all of his infuriating complexity. Here was a man as successful as anyone, and yet in many ways an under-achiever because of his temper and his bluntness. Laura Linney as his wife Abigail is an absolute revelation–a performance as brilliant and multi-faceted as Giamatti’s. Stephen Dillane plays a cool, reserved, almost reptilian Jefferson with similar, if understated, verve. Other actors are also excellent, from David Morse (Washington) to Tom Wilkinson (Benjamin Franklin).
The sweep of historical events is masterfully conveyed in this miniseries, but don’t expect to get an intimate view of things like Revolutionary War battles or the War of 1812. Adams was largely on the sidelines during these events–either serving as an ambassador overseas or not in office. This adds a wonderful perspective, though, on the period, as we get scenes not in the history books.
I cannot recommend John Adams highly enough. I didn’t expect to cry, and I didn’t expect to feel so utterly invested in the lives of Adams and his wife. Stunning stuff. Between the Paine and this miniseries, I’ve finally rediscovered a kind of patriotism and pride in my country, even as I still shudder at the way in which we’ve squandered much of the potential we started with in this country.