Sunday, September 14, 2008
Out of the many winning elements in the John Adams miniseries -- on HBO last spring, on DVD now, and soon to sweep the Emmys next weekend -- the stand-out may be that nearly all of its colonial-era characters sport bad teeth. This may seem like a minor detail until one compares it to the glistening, white-stripped smiles of Mel Gibson and Catherine McCormack in a typical historical epic like Braveheart; then it becomes clear just how fanatically the director here, Tom Hooper, and his army of makeup artists strove for authenticity. Iconic figures like George Washington (David Morse), Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), Ben Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), Abigail Adams (Laura Linney), and John Adams himself (Paul Giamatti) frequently grin into the camera with mouths ridden with plaque and gaps between their incisors, and the effect is more funny and endearing than grotesque. (Oddly, Sarah Polley, who plays Adams' daughter Nabby, and whose famous so-ugly-they're-beautiful choppers would seem ideally suited for the time period, now inexplicably has a smile ready for a Crest commercial.) Dental hygiene even becomes a running gag, capping when Abigail angrily reads a newspaper article filled with many adjectives -- "toothless" among others -- critical of her husband, now the young nation's second president. After she declares that the venerated General Washington never would have been described so contemptuously, President Adams breaks the tension by deadpanning, "Well, toothless, maybe."
Giamatti and Linney -- two of my favorite actors to emerge over the last decade -- are terrific in moments like this, and their oddly potent chemistry lends the Adams' 54-year marriage tremendous conviction. (Both long-term Oscar runners-up, normally specializing in contemporary urban neurotics, if they don't take all the other acting awards for these characters they'll never win for anything.) In the first and arguably weakest of the series' seven episodes, which plays like a colonial version of Boston Legal, Adams is recruited to defend the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre, and Giamatti's incessant shouting in the courtroom becomes grating. (I realize that Adams is meant to be portrayed as ambitious and overbearing, but in this instance it's difficult to separate the character's grandstanding from the actor's.) Yet beginning with the next episode, depicting the heated debates in Philadelphia among the delegates of the First and Second Continental Congresses (leading, of course, to the vote for secession from Britain and the Declaration of Independence), Giamatti calibrates his performance perfectly, and hits all the right notes -- perspicacity, insecurity, kindness, jealousy -- from then on. Linney is superb from the start, balancing her mix of vulnerability and steel as a loving mother and supportive wife. "The woman behind the man" is a cliche I'm growing tired of, and not just in movies; but Linney makes Abigail Adams equally an independent entity and part of a complex relationship, one in which she refuses to be cowed. Her eyes can fix on another person like twin lasers; and her sudden, explosive laughter (as when she responds to Adams' "toothless" joke) is raucous and disarming. It's easy to see why Thomas Jefferson is taken by her; and why she's courted by suitors while her husband spends several years overseas seeking military aid in France -- a less demur Penelope to a more overbearing, unheroic Odysseus.
Had John Adams been a one-shot two-hour made-for-TV movie or theatrical release, it would have suffered as most films of that stripe do, condensing a long and complicated life into a "greatest hits" chain of events, one high point after another without context. It wouldn't have had time to play and breathe, as Hooper (a director I'm previously unfamiliar with) is allotted here. Sometimes the digressions go on interminably, particularly when Wilkinson's Dr. Franklin is onscreen. I've never much cared for Wilkinson, a hambone with an odd negative energy that threatens to suck the juice out of all the surrounding action in whatever part he's playing. He's better at humorless Puritans than characters predisposed to taking their clothes off, like his bonkers litigator in Michael Clayton and hedonistic francophiles like the famous one here. When Adams -- who is supposed to be Puritanical and humorless, albeit amusingly so -- stumbles on the good doctor playing chess in a bathtub with his French mistress -- the moment, set-up as a classic sight-gag, dies with Wilkinson's lack of energy. Physically he looks right, yet a certain spark is missing. (I concur with Matt Seitz that an actor with Ian Holm's pizzazz may have provided one.)
Faring better with the leisurely pacing are Morse and Dillane, whose portraits of Washington and Jefferson, respectively, skillfully turn Mt. Rushmore heads into human beings. Morse plays the former as a reluctant born leader, whose imposing height is offset by a soft-spoken manner more comfortable along the margins of history that at its center. (In a hilariously eccentric touch, he whispers the Oath Of Office upon being elected president.) Dillane takes the opposite tack, his fiercely ambitious Jefferson only too eager to seek the spotlight (or calculatingly recede from it, as when he resigns his post as Secretary of State when things don't go his way). I'd have thought Thomas Jefferson -- a man of esoteric mind as well as intense and baffling contradictions -- almost impossible to play, but Dillane proves me wrong from his first major scene, after he pens an early draft of the Declaration and listens in a quietly wounded manner as Franklin edits his work. It's not easy pulling attention away from Wilkinson's camera hogging, and Dillane does it with the eyes of a man haunted by revolution.
With few exceptions -- including the miscast Polley and Danny Huston's hellraising Samuel Adams, who starts promisingly only to vanish from the action to presumably run a microbrewery -- the remaining cast of John Adams is uniformly fine. (Special props to Rufus Sewell, another of my least favorite actors, in a small though startling turn as a snake-eyed Alexander Hamilton.) And the ensemble behind the camera is even better. The great cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who seems to alternate between films for M. Night Shyamalan and Jonathan Demme, is the DP for at least a few of the episodes (I'm suspecting the ones set primarily in Philadelphia, which if so, he makes as richly atmospheric a colonial town as the textures he conveys in Shyamalan's otherwise silly modern-day spookfests). I'm not sure which of the film's two credited composers, Rob Lane or Joseph Vitarelli, is responsible for the opening credits score, which plays over images of flags from the era ("Join, Or Die," "Don't Tread on Me," etc.). It provides a stirring start to each episode.
As a filmmaker, Hooper is no great shakes. He employs a variety of gimmicks -- hand-held cameras in one scene, Dutch angles in the next -- without developing a singular style to call his own. (Borrowing music identified with Barry Lyndon also isn't the best way to make one's work feel distinct.) The screenplay by Kirk Ellis is, I'm guessing, an amalgam of David McCullough's novel, primary source material like Adams' letters, and some creative license of his own: it's often smart, at times witty, and overall serviceable. The final episode, titled "Peacefield" (after the name of the Adams homestead), would have been more aptly called "Deathknell," as it features the demise of no less than four principal characters. Other than that relentless pile-up (highlighted by a grisly breast cancer procedure, one of those ostentatious "we're on HBO" shout-outs that should have been cut), the structure of the series is solid, following John Adams from his crucial role as "Founding Father" through his controversial presidency to his closing years, where he doubts his place in history will be remembered.
He had reason to worry, as Revolutionary Era films have typically ranged from forgettable to fiascos. I still recall Hugh Hudson's Revolution, a debacle starring Al Pacino during his 1980s dry patch and reduced to bellowing things like "My mouth belongs anywhere I put it!" Laughable as that line is, I think the John Adams of this miniseries would grasp its meaning and support it unequivocally. Freedom matters, is in essence what it means. Freedom to live one's life, freedom to speak one's mind, freedom to do great things, freedom to be a prick -- this engrossing work of art suggests we wouldn't know the name John Adams otherwise.