Monday, June 9, 2008

John Adams on DVD

By David Luhrssen
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Looking sad eyed and put upon by fools, Paul Giamatti breaths life into one of the more shadowy founders of the American republic in the popular imagination. After all, John Adams was never pictured on a dollar bill or a coin and is probably confused with his more hotheaded cousin, Sam, whose name is memorialized by a line of beer. The HBO series called “John Adams” was the most acclaimed, prestige television production of the past year. It’s out now on DVD, all seven episodes plus a bonus documentary by American historian David McCullough, whose Pulitzer Prize winning biography of the second president was the basis for the series.

The wonderful thing about “John Adams,” along with its evocative cinematography, is how it cuts through the fife-and-drum shrillness of most Revolutionary War reenactments. With articulate dialogue and an even-keeled pace, “John Adams” dramatizes the Revolution’s major themes and humanizes the portrait gallery of Revolutionaries.

Adams is exemplary as a man of conscience drawn reluctantly into politics and dismayed by disorder. The tidy battle lines of boring American history texts are erased to reveal the greater complexity. Cousin Sam spoke for revolution in the name of “freeborn Englishmen.” When pressed, John named Massachusetts as his country.

In the opening episode the Boston Massacre, in which British troops fired on a violent mob, occurs almost casually, just outside the frame of the camera. Thinking he’ll help put out a fire in response to the ringing alarm bells of the neighboring church, Adams stumbles blindly into the carnage. And then he takes a step unpopular with his neighbors. He becomes defense attorney for the British soldiers charged with murder, insisting, “counsel is the last thing an accused person should lack in a free country.” His wife Abigail (Laura Linney) supports and critiques him, gently deflating his intellectual vanity.

Adams won over the hostile jury against great odds on the strength of his advocacy of the rule of law and the rules of evidence. “Facts are stubborn things,” he tells the jurors as he pulls apart the eyewitness testimony to reveal fatal discrepancies.

“John Adams” makes it clear that many of the Revolutionaries weren’t angels of light but cudgel wielding sadists or smarmy, “no taxes please” businessmen of the ilk who supported the Reagan Revolution two centuries on. Adams, however, came to believe that the British government overstepped what he deemed as the natural limits of its authority in trampling the civil rights of Massachusetts. As a delegate of the colony to the Continental Congress where independence was declared, Adams began to envision a new nation along the Atlantic seaboard, grounded in inalienable rights that trump the laws of men.

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