Saturday, July 19, 2008


Finally finished John Adams. History come alive! Or not.
After the first episode, which bares only a passing resemblance to history, things got better. There were many references to history throughout, some apocryphal, some dramatically licensed, some compressed and some reordered, but most of it was historicalesque. The costumes, the grotesques and the digital sets were all very impressive. The casting was all weird. The camera work might've made sense if this was the story of a skateboarder in Holland — it would explain all the extreme Dutching.

But it was the Tom Hanksing of history that was craziest. John and Samuel Adams running around the scene of the Boston Massacre! John Adams implying that Sam shouted "fire!" John Adams attracting the governor's(') attention only after accepting the cases defending the Captain and his troops! The cases taking place immediately after the massacre! The cases being one case! The testimony that turned the case! The universal acquittals!

I doubt any of this would've seemed as absurd if Adams didn't rail on about the stubborn facts of the case. In fact, he spends a fair amount of the miniseries complaing that history keeps getting the facts wrong. Usually when the series is making shit up.

You want to tell the story of Nabby Adams? That's fine. She traveled to Europe, met Adams' secretary, married him in London, Adams got him several jobs while Vice- and President, Nabby and their children traveled with her husband while he engaged in several failed enterprises and she only returned home for her mastectomy and to die. OH! You want to tell a completely different story for no reason!


I liked when the ghost of Adams' friend visited him to tell him to write to Jefferson after Abigail died. What high comedy this scene must've been! Adams and Jefferson had already renewed their friendship years earlier.

Some stuff seemed wrong, but I haven't found any sources saying they are wrong. John Adams firing the first shot against the British while making his trip across the Atlantic! The first of two, by the way. The amputation scene was a week's events compressed into a minute, but I have no idea why they had John Quincy witness it.

Maybe he did, but it seemed like yet another dramatic license taken for a story they never told. That's how a lot of the series played out. As though dramatic licensees from earlier drafts with different emphases were retained once everyone forgot they weren't based in fact.

The series does have its strengths. It dealt with the platonic triangle of Jefferson and the Adamses well. When the story focuses on them, it actually has focus (even when it gets things out of chronological order). I'll even accept the scene of Adams learning Jefferson paid for the editorials criticizing him years later even though... come on! He knew. He knew!

The handling of the XYZ Affair was all wrong and missed the one political triumph of Adams' presidency. I'm pretty sure most of the machiniations of the Continental Congress were off as well, with Adams relying more on surrogates than was shown, but I excused most of that for expediency in the telling.

They treated Washington pretty fairly and suggest Franklin's failings. Franklin was lovable, loved and incorrigible. He was also duplicitous, easily distracted and a horrible emissary.

I would've liked to have seen more attention paid to Adams' patriotic work in Boston, the Continental Congress, his attempts to support Washington in the war: the things that made him the second most viable candidate for president. Also more attention to the Alien & Sedition acts, and the formation of political parties: the things his presidency is most noted for. I also would've liked to have seen more explaining of the Americans' problems with England. And maybe something about John Quincy authoring the Monroe Doctrine. Or John Quincy's presidency failing because of the very parties that formed around John Adams. Or John Quincy becoming president on the same constitutional technicality that put Jefferson in office. You know, something that might actually tie these stories together.


Blogger Marcos Perez said...


don't read a book about the mayans before seeing apocalypto!

your head will explode!

4:46 PM  
Blogger Aunt Bee said...

I can't argue your factual nit-picking because I just don't have that much detail on Adams at my fingertips. But I thought—other than the camera angles that resembled Leo's Romeo & Juliet, aye!—that it was very well done. The spirit of the times came across quite beautifully, Adams character was very well portrayed as was his partnership with Abigail. And I thought it was incredibly well-casted. Except maybe Sewell as Hamilton. But I'm willing to let that one go. So what I want to know is, if you hated it so much, why did you watch all 8-plus hours?

5:26 PM  
Blogger Marcos Perez said...

cause he loves sewell!

though i thought that was unfair to poor hamilton.

if rufus sewell is playing you. you know you're bad.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

If Apocalypso pretended to be history, sure. And if the characters in Apocalypso have soliloquies about history getting it wrong, sure again!

They should've had Alan Cumming play Hamilton. A young Alan Cumming.

You know that guy, A. Youngalan Cumming?

6:13 PM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

I watched all 8 hours because I am a masochist. Also, I had the dvds, so I might as well. Also, it's my favortie historical subject. And I just read two books on it this spring, so I was well-marinated and primed.

Also, I agree with almost everything you wrote. The evocation of the times, especially, was well worth it.

Paul Giamatti was sometimes a little too earthy for me. I know Adams was a farmer, but I wanted him to be pillowier. And those scenes where he gives that look that says, "I might be an unlikable prick, but I'm all man baby!" Those were disturbing. No one wants to think about John Adams having sex. But he was otherwise quite good and I did believe the relationships and his self-martyrdom complex.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

ALSO! I didn't know you were blogging again! And two to boot!

For dinner, I'll be catching up.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Marcos Perez said...

First off, I enjoyed Adams, for most of the reasons put forth. The evocation of the times, the acting. At times the narrative was a clunky path to walk, and if I was more familiar to the history, perhaps I could see a better solution to those problems like you put forth in that last paragraph.

As for pretending to be history. To me, it seemed to pretend to be a miniseries on HBO compacting a man' life into 7 hours. Historical inaccuracies are hardly a surprise.
It's fictionalized history. Edu-tainment at best. It may peak one's interest to go read a book. Generally speaking I'm less interested in what is intended and more in what the artist ends up with but since we are talking intentions!. Here, I saw an attempt to humanize the times and attempt to portray it differently in cinema than it had been done before. An impression, that will no doubt lose facts in favor of a bigger picture. I'm not saying they couldn't have done a better job. But that was the intent as I saw it. Perhaps that intent is unambitious or too simplistic, but this guy with thumbs enjoyed the efforts!

As for your second point I agree. The history is important to the narrative and, looking at what you wrote I can see they missed oppurtunities to bolster this. But it didn't ruin it for me. Not at all. Because I didn't read two books! Therefore I was joyfully ignorant!

It's a bit impossible for me to see it from your perspective or vice versa. I imagine if I read two books I may have yelled at the screen as I imagine you did.

But I didn't. What you wrote is 1 part review, ten parts laundry list of inaccuracies, half of which make no difference to what it "pretends" to be as I see it.

Too conclude I enjoyed Adams! It was style over story and facts.
But an impressive attempt at what must be a difficult subject, to say the least.

At least they got the Adams vs. Krakken fight right.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Marcos Perez said...

also I now call you buff, for shorts.

why do history nerds get called buffs?

seems unfair!

4:28 PM  
Blogger Marcos Perez said...

I meant pique!

Peak one is for scaling.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Aunt Bee said...

But sometimes he has to be like, "hey baby i'm all man" because John and Abigail were like the original American Camelot. So you have to be able to imagine they're, you know, doing it.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

1. I say this drunk on sangrias and patrons:

2. I love you both.

3. Where's Kenny? I love him too.

4. Camping?! The nerve.

5. I fully concede that if I hadn't read some books recently, I would be running on High School fumes. There's little chance things would've stood out. I'd probably think that was a pretty accurate depiction of Shay's Rebellion or something.

6. There was a reasonable intention to 'give Adams his due'. Aside from making the times come alive (which they did), there was also an attempt to retrieve Adams from obscurity. I have to assume we at least agree on that point.

7. If part of the attempt is to retrieve Adams from history, then shouldn't the miniseries focus on what he actually did? If he was a great man, shouldn't we see the scenes of him actually being a great man?

8. Again, part of the problem was they started taking broad liberties almost immediately. I have no real problem with condensing events or characters, but the opening thesis of the miniseries was: this man wears his losses heavy (or like an insult), he loves his family to the point of embarrassment, and he puts aside politics for the sake of human life.

9. (and I have no idea why I'm numbering these) That's all well and good. It's actually not a bad assessment of Adams. I'd even say it isn't overly generous. But, in order to make that point, they have to lie.

10. Ignoring feminist history for a moment (but I want to get back to that), Adams earned his place in American history principally through the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Which is not to diminish him. Adams was the man who demanded independence. Others asked, and Jefferson took it further, but Adams made the case. It wasn't recorded, but his closing argument was the final word on the debate. How awesome is that? It's hard for me to express the esteem I have for the man who made the Second Continental Congress one of the most important events in all human history.

10. But here are SO MANY myths surrounding the founding fathers, it saddens me that this miniseries deemed it necessary to invent new ones. He could have been portrayed as a man of honor without faking his approach to cronyism. He could have been shown as a man willing to thrust himself in harms way without inventing scenes where he did. He could have been shown as a man who administered help to the wounded without sticking him in events he never witnessed.

11. If the miniseries hadn't devolved into made-up history so quickly, I might not have looked for it later.

12. I totally agree that I mostly just listed half-assed complaints, but that was what was on my mind. I completely got caught up in that aspect instead of writing about the miniseries itself.

13. I personally find the actual history more interesting. I'm a nerd for the times. I hate it when Batman uses guns too. I have a LOT of difficulty seeing past these sorts of things. Either be what I know you to be or don't be. That's my slogan and my weakness.

14. ONE of my weaknesses.

15. I actually did enjoy the miniseries. The problems bugged me, but they also inspired me to find out what bothered me.

16. I'm thrilled that you both enjoyed the miniseries. For all its faults, the series did have more history — more evocatively told — than any other movie about the time. I think anyone who watches John Adams knows more about the period than most people who don't. I don't want to diminish that.

17. I love Deadwood. It's a period I'm less familiar with and a place I was uninformed about. I know there's a lot of made up history there as well. It doesn't bother me because I never focused my attention on it. I don't mean to say John Adams was lesser because of its deviation from facts.

18. I do mean to say that the series was inconsistent. I think that adhering closer o the facts might've told a more complete story. Maybe I'm too close to it, but I think his life makes more dramatic sense if it is told honestly.

19. That's the part that really gets me. The dishonesty in the depiction. All the stuff about Nabby would've been fine, if the intent was to tell us who Adams really was. I felt that what it did was tell us what a 1940s liberal Hollywood character would be like instead.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

I wish I was buff for shorts. Then I might wear them.

New Suave video: a bunch of history nerds on the beach kicking sand in the faces of people living in the now.

"Here's the Treaty of Paris, in sand!" Muscle Beach, meet the Buffs!

12:44 AM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

And now, the feminist history.

John Adams was rescued from obscurity mainly because his and Abigail's letters were studied and republished as part of a focus on women's roles in the founding of America. Abigail became a feminist icon because she disabused the notion of a historical perspective that suggested we accept the failings of vision amongst the founding fathers because they were little more than products of their times.

The latter is a position I used to subscribe to, and am happy to renounce. In many ways I'm embarrassed to say I thought so little of the potential for progressive thinking amongst people debating it every day.

This series bringing greater light to Abigail's story is, perhaps, the series' greatest strength.

I would also like to say that I was very very very impressed that the series didn't shy away from Abigail's push for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts (even if it diminished John's). Abigail was very much a hero of thought and of expression, but she was also protective to the point of being a villain.

There's a strong case to be made for Abigail being considered a political thinker at (or possibly surpassing) even Jefferson's level.

I love Abigail Adams and actually see her as one of the standards by which I hold my own own romantic entanglements by. Even more so because I think Adams and I share a certain doughyness and temperment, if not a level of success.

However, I don't think anyone should ever imagine ME having sex, and I maintain the same should hold true for John.

Also, "Everyone thinks I'm a jerk, but baby I'm all man," is SO my thing. Damn you Giamatti for stealing my thing!

1:11 AM  
Blogger Justin J. Fox said...

Holy crap. I'm drunk. Sorry for all my typing.

Thanks, auto spell check, for making me look soberesque!

1:12 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker